How Sidney Poitier rewrote the script for black actors in Hollywood | Smart News

Sidney Poitier, pictured here in 2006 at the Cannes Film Festival, died on Friday January 7. He was 94 years old.
Photo by Toni Anne Barson / WireImage / Getty Images

Actor and director Sidney Poitier, who broke racial barriers by portraying black men with grace and depth during the heyday of Hollywood, died at his Los Angeles home on Friday. He was 94 years old.

The actors’ deaths were confirmed by the Bahamian Foreign Office, where he grew up. No cause of death was provided, reports William Grimes for the New York Times.

Poitier broke new ground as a black actor in pivotal films that explored race relations, including the roles of Detective Virgil Tibbs in In the heat of the Night (1967) and Doctor John Prentice in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967). A talented actor who made a name for himself playing worthy heroes, he wowed audiences on stage and in front of the camera in stage and film productions of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A raisin in the sun, on Chicago real estate covenants.

By portraying nuanced black characters in films, Poitier “really opened up the possibilities of who might be a black actor,” says Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and the performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

“He was extremely powerful in reshaping the possibilities in the public imagination of who black people are,” Reece adds.

In 1964, Poitier became the first black to win the Oscar for Best Actor for his work in Field lilies (1963). At the height of his career in the late 1960s, he was the highest paid movie star in the United States.

At a time when Hollywood was still segregated and studios offered little or no major roles for black actors, Poitier’s success “changed the tenor and the shade of Hollywood,” wrote Smithsonian secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III on Twitter.

Poster featuring a black and white photo of a young Poitier, in a polo shirt smiling and looking up

Poster for A raisin in the sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Kayla Deigh Owens, Playbill used with permission. All rights reserved, Playbill Inc.

Poitier was the son of Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier, tomato farmers from the Bahamas who often traveled to Miami, Florida to sell their produce. Born on February 20, three weeks before her due date in 1927 during one of these trips, Poitier was an American citizen by birth.

One of seven children, he grew up on Cat Island and later near Nassau, where his father worked as a taxi driver. When Florida imposed an embargo on tomatoes from the Bahamas, the family business suffered enough that Poitier, 14, was sent to live with his older brother Cyril in the United States.

Poitier moved to New York the following year, where he learned English, according to a 2012 documentary. He auditioned once for the American Negro Theater in Harlem, but was rejected because his Bahamian accent was too strong. Determined, Poitier bought a radio, imitating the English voices he heard in various programs; six months later, during his second audition, the cast of actors accepted him into the fold, reports the Time.

The young actor made the leap to the big screen in the film noir No Exit (1950), in the role of a black doctor who treats two racist white men guilty of attempted theft. But Poitier continued to support himself as a dishwasher in New York City until he secured prominent roles in Jungle blackboard (1955) and The provocateurs (1958), which catapulted him into the national spotlight.

He returned to the stage in 1959 as Walter Lee Younger, the father of a poor family living in the South Chicago neighborhood in A raisin in the sun. The play was the first written by a black woman to be performed on Broadway and became a surprise hit from the premiere: “After several callbacks, the audience started screaming for the author, after which Mr. Poitier jumped in. auditorium and dragged Miss Hansberry on stage, ”reported Kenneth Tynan in the New Yorker at the time.

With greater fame also came greater responsibility, as Poitier sought to support the civil rights movement for racial justice while also forging a career within a flawed Hollywood system. “As the first successful black man in the history of American cinema, Poitier walked a tightrope,” says Ryan Lintelman, curator of popular culture at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, in an email.

Poitier wears a black suit, white shirt and black tie and is seated in front of an excited group of young blacks, who all appear to be clamoring for his autograph

Poitier signed autographs in 1977.

Scurlock Studio Records / Archives Center / National Museum of American History / Smithsonian Institution

The actor challenged a host of negative stereotypes about black men by projecting confidence, gravity, sex appeal and bravery to American audiences, Lintelman says. But while the studios continued to portray Poitier as a flawless or noble hero, viewers of the emerging Black Power movement of the 1970s and 1980s disparaged the actor for “supplying white Hollywood”, that is. say playing modest characters who were acceptable to white audiences. , says Reece, curator of NMAAHC.

For many, Poitier embodied the slow and steadfast integrationist approach to racial justice advocated by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Debates over Poitier’s roles in the films reflected a tension within the wider civil rights movement: “Everyone had a different opinion on what needed to be done… There is no monolithic view of the African American community, ”says Reece.

For her part, notes Reece, she rejects criticism from Poitier by noting that “each one exercises their power and their agency in different ways”.

“Poitier was part of the Hollywood system. A lot of black actors, if not all, worked with what they had, ”says Reece. “They tried to build characters from stereotypical outlines. … And that was part of the method to break into Hollywood. We had to start somewhere.

In a candid interview in 1967 with journalist Joan Barthel, Poitier himself responded to the idea that he was “playing the shutout game of the Hollywood establishment”.

Poitier, in the center of a marching crowd of black men, wears a dark jacket and sunglasses and looks you straight in the eye

Poitier supported the poor people’s campaign for economic justice in Resurrection City, a makeshift town on the Washington, DC Mall in May 1968.

Photo by Chester Sheard / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

“If the fabric of society were different, I would cry to heaven for playing the bad guy and facing different images of black life that would be more dimensional,” the actor said in the interview. “But I’ll be damned if I do that at this point in the game. Not when there’s just one black actor working in movies with some consistency, when there are thousands of actors in movies, you follow?

In the 1980s, Poitier took a step back from acting and switched to directing. His credits including the hit comedy Stir crazy (1980), about two unemployed friends accused of bank robbery, and Fast forward (1985), which features a multiracial Ohio dance troupe.

Former President Barack Obama awarded Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. His long list of accolades also includes ten Golden Globe nominations and two additional Oscar nominations. From 1997 to 2007, he was Ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan, visiting the country three times a year.

Poster for a concert to help sit-in movements and in defense of Martin Luther King, with Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters and Diahann Carroll

Poster for a concert in aid of the sit-in movements and in defense of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1960

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Poitier is survived by his first wife, the dancer and model Juanita Hardy, whom he married in 1951 and divorced in 1965; and actress Joanna Shimkus, whom he married in 1976. He is also survived by five of his six daughters. Gina Poitier-Gouraige, the child of Poitier from her first marriage to Hardy, died in 2018 at the age of 57.

One of Poitier’s steadfast companions in the civil rights struggle was his contemporary actor and lifelong friend Harry Belafonte. The two met as 20-year-old actors in Harlem and supported each other as they navigated a cut-throat entertainment industry. They frequently starred in films together and paraded alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the Deep South and in the March on Washington.

“For over 80 years, Sidney and I have laughed and cried and hurt as much as we could,” Belafonte said in a statement reported by Hillel Italy of The Associated Press.

“He was really my brother and my partner in trying to make this world a little better. He certainly made mine much better, ”adds the 94-year-old.

Reflecting on Poitier’s artistic career, Reece highlights his role in In the heat of the Night (1967) as a particularly revealing moment in his career. In the film, Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, an “arrogant North Philadelphia” homicide detective who is falsely arrested for a murder in a small town in Mississippi. Tibbs later stays to investigate the case.

In the film, the character of Poitier “has a position of authority but is also subject to the ideals of white supremacy,” notes Reece.

“It fully inhabits both sides of that personality, or these tensions, of being a black person in America,” Reece said. It was a tension, she adds, which was arguably also reflected in Poitier’s life and career.

The actor’s performance as Tibbs bears all of the hallmarks – grace, poise, dignified demeanor – typically associated with Poitier, Reece says. “But he also showed this latent anger and a demand for respect,” she adds. “The performance was strong and quiet at the same time. “

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