by Nisa Islam Muhammad and Tariqah Muhammad
“There is a certain anger; it reaches such intensity that to express it fully would require homicidal rage—self-destructive, destroy-the-world rage—and its flame burns because the world is so unjust.” ―Sidney Poitier from his memoir, “The Measure of a Man”
Amid a very unjust world, Sidney Poitier was born and blossomed into a man dedicated to his art and activism. For decades audiences beheld the class, dignity and poise he exuded on screen. Mr. Poitier was the first Black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor for “Lilies of the Field” in 1964. He was nominated for the same award in 1959 for the movie “The Defiant Ones.” His elegant performances in the film industry inspired and paved the way for later generations of Black actors. Mr. Poitier passed away January 6. He was 94 years old.
His other stellar accomplishments in Hollywood and beyond include starring in such classics as “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “To Sir With Love.”
“Sidney Portier was an intelligent, dignified, Black man. On the surface where Black people are pictured as thieves, or buffoons, he really stood up for us. He provided an image of someone who was intelligent, thoughtful, strong, someone that people could look up to,” Luci Murphy, a Washington, D.C., artist and activist told The Final Call.
Chicago filmmaker Mark Harris said Mr. Poitier’s integrity on-screen was an inspiration to Black men in general. “To me as a filmmaker, I remember “Lilies of the Field” as a young man watching it. That’s one of the movies that really touched me,” he told The Final Call.
“What I enjoyed most about him was the fact that the movies that he partnered with Bill Cosby to make, those movies inspired me. He inspired me as a Black man in general.” In the mid-1970s Mr. Poitier and Mr. Cosby starred in three blaxploitation crime comedies, “Uptown Saturday Night,” “Let’s Do It Again” and “A Piece of the Action,” all of which were directed by Mr. Poitier.
“His legacy in film, he had so much dignity and pride. His legacy will live on forever,” said Mr. Harris.
Sidney Poitier’s career started in 1949 with small parts that increased in the 1950’s; but before he could really take off with White liberal filmmakers, he was confronted with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Anti-Communist campaign.
“Before I had learned enough about politics to get a fix on McCarthy, I found myself victimized by the indiscriminate gusts from his demagoguery. With a long arm that was never ready to help but always ready to hurt, the Senator smeared and paralyzed much of the area I had by now chosen to spend my life in. Before I could understand any of it, I was blacklisted. I wasn’t able to work.” Mr. Poitier explains in his 1980 autobiography “This Life.”
“I couldn’t really say for sure whether it was a blacklist or my Black face that was keeping me out of work.”
This experience impacted him and the way he viewed the world. When McCarthy’s tirade was over, Mr. Poitier was allowed to work again. He performed with celebrities like Harry Belafonte who became a best friend and often co-star in movies like “Buck and the Preacher,” and “Uptown Saturday Night.” During the 1960’s they bonded as civil rights activists.
In 1964, Mr. Belafonte received a frantic call from Student Nonviolent Committee (SNCC) leader James Forman. The group would run out of money within the next 72 hours. Mr. Belafonte raised $70,000 in two days. The only way to deliver the money was in person.
He and Mr. Poitier took the money stuffed into a doctor’s bag to Freedom Summer volunteers in Greenwood, Miss. SNCC field secretary Willie Blue picked them up. However, they were ambushed by the Klan, who with guns blazing, used a pickup truck to try to run them off the road.
Mr. Poitier’s activism also took him and Mr. Belafonte to the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s delivered the historic “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1967, Dr. King said of Mr. Poitier, “He is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.”
While Mr. Poitier was dedicated to human rights and freedom, his strong presence on film and in all he accomplished did so much more.
Mr. Belafonte said of Mr. Poitier, “I don’t think anyone [else] in the world could have been anointed with the responsibility of creating a whole new image of Black people, and especially Black men.”
That new image of Black men was seen in the 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night” where he played police detective Virgil Tibbs. Mr. Poitier delivers a classic line to the sheriff in the movie who refuses to address him properly. With dignity, determination and defiance, Mr. Poitier, playing police detective Virgil Tibbs, says, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” That same film contains another iconic scene when a wealthy White man slaps Mr. Poitier’s character and he slaps him back. To date, the clip earned over 300k views on YouTube under the title, “the slap heard round the world.”
Mr. Poitier’s other classic films include, “Cry the Beloved Country,” “The Blackboard Jungle,” “Paris Blues,” “The Defiant Ones,” and “Patch of Blue.” He received the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes in 1982, the AFI (American Film Institute) Lifetime Achievement prize in 1992, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995, the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Life Achievement Award in 1999 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, from President Barack Obama.
Producer and founder of Mahdi Theatre Margaret Mahdi told The Final Call that Mr. Poitier’s roles challenged the notion of Black men as “coons” and inferior to their White counterparts.
“We are immensely grateful to Allah that He has gifted us with great ones who have shown the world how to express God’s talents and gifts in a supremely noble manner,” she said. “To me, Mr. Poitier represented wholesomeness, class and dignity in his character portrayals,” added Ms. Mahdi.
“His confidence and pride in being a dark-skinned Black man exuded throughout his portrayals. We didn’t see an inferior complexed Black man in any of his films. We witnessed a Black man that celebrated his Blackness. His acting was also superior. We felt his passionate portrayals because he gave soul and life through all his characters,” she said.
“He was to Hollywood what Jackie Robinson was to baseball,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC. “He broke the color barrier at the top level. The first Black to win an Oscar for acting. And I think that this country, this world and certainly the world of cinema could never pay the debt that is owed to Sidney Poitier.”
Born to Bahamian parents March 27, 1927, Mr. Poitier could trace his family back to his great, great-great grandparents March Poitier and Emily Evans. He is survived by his wife Joanna Shimkus and his children, Beverly Poitier-Henderson, Pamela Poitier, Sherri Poitier, Gina Poitier, Anika Poitier and Sydney Tamiia Poitier.
Social media was flooded with sentiments expressed by those whose lives Mr. Poitier touched. Mr. Obama wrote on Facebook, “Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together. He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans.”
Actor Martin Lawrence wrote, “This one hits hard. My prayers and condolences go out to the family of the iconic and trailblazing Sidney Poitier.”
“Luckily Poitier was there to show me that Black is beautiful & that I didn’t need to aspire towards being anyone but myself,” wrote Juan Michael Porter II on Twitter.