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Trailblazers: Sidney Poitier

Written by Film

There are great actors, whose works break artistic ground in their bold experimentation or unwavering commitment to seamless authenticity, and then there are important actors, whose portfolio not only soars above their peers in sheer magnetism and scope, but transcends the medium in what it represents to the art form and those who follow it.

Sidney Poitier is one of the very few actors whose effect and subsequent legacy does just this, signifying a watershed moment in the American film industry that has paved the way for countless underrepresented and marginalised voices in an overwhelmingly white industry. Born in 1927 to a Bahamian-American family, The Times wrote that “Bigotry and Poverty were Poitier’s lot in youth”. Acting provided no instant remedy, however, having been initially rejected to the American Negro theatre due to his Bahamian accent, and consequently suffering an unfavourable first run which drew little audience admiration. He persisted, however, and the studio producer Darryl F. Zanuck noticed Poitier and offered him a role in the picture No way out (1950). It wasn’t until 1958, when he starred alongside Anthony Curtis in The Defiant Ones, that Poitier was catapulted into stardom due to the critical and commercial success of the film. This would mark the beginning of a remarkable decade that would include pictures such as A raisin in the sun (1961), Lilies of the Field (1963) – for which he would become the first African-American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). Poitier had forged a path into the heart of Hollywood that was simply unprecedented in its era, highlighted most acutely in him being the American Film Institute’s only black actor to appear in their 50 Greatest Screen Legends series.

His importance stems from the fact that he altered a nation’s preconceived notion of what a movie star should look like. Despite the burgeoning civil rights movement taking place during the ’50s, there wasn’t a star to represent African-Americans in Hollywood, until Poitier.

When one thought of film, images of Cary Grant (North by Northwest) or Jimmy Stewart (It’s a wonderful life) sprung to mind and had become so firmly entrenched in the audience’s cognisance that the sheer scale of his task seemed insurmountable. Yet he tore up the playbook, portraying dignified, principled characters in such a way that to deny his raw dynamism became a fruitless venture. The fact that he turned down subservient roles such as butlers or chauffeurs is pivotal in understanding how this identity was forged. Poitier had to convince the audience to think otherwise, to shape and mould a nation’s comprehension of who a black actor could portray on screen, and why no role was off-limits. He achieved this with such grace and fluency that by 1967 he was voted the year’s biggest box-office draw.

In times when inequalities are so bitingly apparent, introspection seems imperative for a film industry grappling with systemic racism and an unfavourable history. Yet celebrating the trailblazers who’s works dared to reach above the parapet is just as vital. There is no better example of this than Sidney Poitier. The actor once said that he felt as if he was representing 15 million people with every move he made. Looking back on it, he didn’t put a foot wrong.

“Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, New York, New York, 1959”
Photo by Gordon Parks

Featured image: Biography

Last modified: 19th August 2020

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