In honor of Black History Month, DMG explores the life of pioneering African-American director, writer, diplomat and Academy Award winning actor and true Hollywood Movie Star – Sir Sidney Poitier.
Poitier was born in Miami, Florida on February 20, 1927. Son of Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier, Sidney was born two months premature and was not expected to live. Despite the odds, the boy was nursed back to health before moving to the Bahamas. Sidney spent his childhood in poverty with his family on Cat Island until relocating back to America at the age of fifteen. At 18, Sidney moved to New York, where he worked as unskilled labor until joining the United States Army. As a dishwasher in the military, Sidney searched for a higher calling and found the answer in acting.
On impulse, Sidney auditioned for Harlem’s American Negro Theatre, but was swiftly rejected for his thick Bahamian accent. Determined to join the theatre group, Sidney spent six months honing and crafting his accent and stage presence so on his second audition, he was accepted. Sidney’s talents were quickly recognized, ultimately landing him a role in the Broadway play “Lysistrata”. Sidney’s performance was well received, gaining him another performing role in the Broadway production “Anna Lucasta”.
In 1949, Sidney made his feature film debut in the Darryl F. Zanuck movie NO WAY OUT (1950). Sidney played the role of Dr. Luther Brooks, a junior doctorial resident caught in a storm of racial tension. Sidney’s performance caught Hollywood’s attention, encouraging studios to offer him more roles. Sidney continued his acting career by playing supporting roles in films such as CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY (1951), GO, MAN, GO! (1954), GOOD-BYE, MY LADY (1956) and BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955). Although the studios gave Sidney substantial parts, he was still routinely passed over for lead roles due to racial prejudices.
In 1958, Sidney played opposite Tony Curtis in the prison escape classic THE DEFIANT ONES. The film was cherished by audiences and praised by critics. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther stated, “Mr. Poitier stands out as the Negro convict and Mr. Curtis is surprisingly good. Both men are intensely dynamic. Mr. Poitier shows a deep and powerful strain of underlying compassion.” Sidney’s performance earned him a BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and the Academy’s first African-American best actor nomination (up to this point, the only African-American to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel for her supporting role as Mammy in 1939’s GONE WITH THE WIND and only other blacks to be nominated were Dorothy Dandridge in 1954 and Ethel Waters in 1949). While some would consider an Oscar nomination an accomplishment in itself, the nomination only added fuel to Sidney’s ambitions.
Sidney continued to chase his silver screen dreams, appearing in several other features, including PORGY AND BESS (1959), A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961), and PRESSURE POINT (1962). In 1963, Sidney starred in Ralph Nelson’s adaptation of the William Edmund Barrett novel LILLIES OF THE FIELD (1963). Sidney played the role of Homer Smith, a wandering laborer that German nuns believe was sent by God to build a chapel. Sidney’s spellbinding performance brought him back into the Academy Award spotlight. Despite competing against Paul Newman, Albert Finney, Richard Harris, and Rex Harrison, Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Although Sidney achieved a major milestone for the black community, his gratification was short-lived as he came to believe that the Academy only wanted to improve Hollywood’s public image.
While Sidney continued to act in many films, such as A PATCH OF BLUE (1965), but his career went interstellar in 1967 when he starred in three successful movies TO SIR, WITH LOVE, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, which made him that year’s top box-office star. During this time, Poitier was essentially the only African-American lead in Hollywood and it was this status as both role-model and token that led Poitier to look for other avenues for his creativity. He began to explore a career as a director, moving behind the camera to direct BUCK AND THE PREACHER (1972), UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT (1974), and STIR CRAZY (1980) starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, which was the highest grossing film directed by an African-American for years. Sidney also became involved in writing, producing three autobiographies; his third, Life Beyond Measure – Letters to My Great-Granddaughter (2008), became an official Oprah’s Book Club selection and bestseller. Sidney also became involved in politics as well, he served for a decade as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan.
Sidney’s contributions to film and society were heavily decorated. Sidney’s efforts in politics earned him a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1974), Kennedy Center Honors (1995), NAACP Hall of Fame Award (2001), and a Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009). Sidney’s film excellence was honored with an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award (1992), SAG Life Achievement Award (1999) and an Honorary Oscar (2002). Sidney’s elegant yet commanding presence on and off-screen transcended him from a brilliant actor to an African-American cultural icon. Despite the adversity Sidney faced, he continued to push the limits and challenge convention as he tackled roles which forced film goers to face social and racial inequalities. As Sidney slowly faded from Hollywood’s spotlight, he continued his efforts to improve lives by taking on government positions. Sidney embodies the struggle, determination and grace which Black History Month represents, which is why DMG is proud to give insight into his outstanding life. Sidney Poitier, thank you for service.
“Acting isn’t a game of “pretend.” It’s an exercise in being real.” ― Sidney Poitier