The amazing life of Sidney Poitier, the first black Hollywood star

Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier

By Nehru Odeh

Sidney Poitier, Hollywood’s first black movie star and the first black man to win an Oscar has died. He was 94.

Still, aside from the fact that he blazed the trail as the first black man to star in Hollywood, he surmounted many challenges to achieve greatness in a society divided along racial lines. And not only was he accepted and given the recognition he deserved, he dictated his own terms.

“(Blacks) were so new in Hollywood. There was almost no frame of reference for us except as stereotypical, one-dimensional characters,” Poitier told Winfrey. “I had in mind what was expected of me — not just what other Blacks expected but what my mother and father expected. And what I expected of myself,” Poitier told Oprah Winfrey in 2000.

Early on, Poitier made a conscious decision to reject roles that weren’t consistent with his values or that reflected badly upon his race. He told Winfrey that as a struggling young actor, he turned down a role that paid $750 a week because he didn’t like the character, a janitor who didn’t respond after thugs killed his daughter and threw her body on his lawn.

“I could not imagine playing that part. So I said to myself, ‘That’s not the kind of work I want.’ And I told my agent that I couldn’t play the role,” Poitier said. “He said, ‘Why can’t you play it? There’s nothing derogatory about it in racial terms,’ and I said, ‘I can’t do it.’ He never understood.”

Such was the stuff of Poitier’s legendary life. Such was the determination that not only defined his life but also paved the way for his success. Such was the focus he had that he surmounted so many challenges including Hollywood’s stereotypes.

“Racism was horrendous, but there were other aspects to life,” he told Winfrey. “There are those who allow their lives to be defined only by race. I correct anyone who comes at me only in terms of race.”

This was a man who after receiving an honorary Academy Award for his overall contribution to American cinema in 2001 and accepting his best actor Oscar for “Training Day” the following year, Denzel Washington said, “Forty years I’ve been chasing Sidney. … I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps.”

However, a remarkable thing Poitier’s grass to grace story is that not only did he come from a poor background (his parents were tomato farmers who often travelled to and from Florida and the Bahamas) he was not expected to live when he was born.

The youngest of seven children, he was born several months premature on 20 February 1927. He was so tiny he could fit in his father’s hand. His mother consulted a palm reader, who assuaged her fears

“The lady took her hand and started speaking to my mother: ‘Don’t worry about your son. He will survive,'” Poitier told CBS News in 2013. “And these were her words; she said, ‘He will walk with kings.’ ”

When he was 15, Poitier’s parents sent him from the Bahamas to live with an older brother in Miami, where they figured he would have better opportunities. His father took him to the dock and put $3 in his hand.

“He said, ‘take care of yourself, son.’ And he turned me around to face the boat,” Poitier told NPR in 2009.

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Poitier didn’t like Miami and soon headed north to New York, where he tried his hand at acting. It did not go well at first. With limited schooling, he had trouble reading a script. But he got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant, where a fortuitous encounter changed his life. An elderly waiter took an interest in the teen and spent nights after work reading the newspaper with him to improve his comprehension, grammar and punctuation.

“That man, every night, the place is closed, everyone’s gone, and he sat there with me week after week after week,” Poitier told CBS News. “And he told me about punctuations. He told me where dots were and what the dots mean here between these two words, all of that stuff.”

Soon after, Poitier landed work with the American Negro Theatre, where he took acting lessons, softened his Bahamian accent and landed a stage role as an understudy to Harry Belafonte. This led to roles on Broadway and eventually caught the attention of Hollywood.

Speaking on a live Facebook stream on Friday, The Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Philip Davis, where his parentss originally hailed from summed up his life in a befitting tribute:

“Our whole Bahamas grieves. But even as we mourn, we celebrate the life of a great Bahamian.”He added: “His strength of character, his willingness to stand up and be counted and the way he plotted and navigated his life’s journey.

“The boy who moved from the tomato farm to become a waiter in the United States, a young man who not only taught himself to read and write, but who made the expression of words and thoughts and feelings central to his career.”

This indeed sums up the life of an actor who came from an impoverished background but later went to win the Oscar for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field,” in which he played an itinerant laborer who helps a group of White nuns build a chapel.

Many of his best-known films explored racial tensions as Americans were grappling with social changes wrought by the civil rights movement. In 1967 alone, he appeared as a Philadelphia detective fighting bigotry in small-town Mississippi in “In the Heat of the Night” and a doctor who wins over his White fiancée’s skeptical parents in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

However, one of the momentous events in his life was when he played Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night,” which gave Poitier his most enduring role. He played Virgil Tibbs, a homicide detective passing through Mississippi when he is detained by a bigoted White police chief (Rod Steiger) as a possible suspect in a slaying. Tibbs reluctantly agrees to stay and help solve the case, and the two men eventually find a grudging mutual respect.

The movie gave Poitier his most famous line — “They call me Mister Tibbs!” — an indignant cry for respect after a demeaning slur by Steiger’s character.

In another memorable scene, Tibbs is slapped in the face by a racist plantation owner and then slaps him right back. Before agreeing to do the film, Poitier requested a script change to add the retaliatory slap and even rewrote his contract to prohibit the studio from cutting the scene.

“And of course it is one of those great, great moments in all of film, when you slap him back,” CBS News’ Lesley Stahl told Poitier in 2013. He replied, “Yes, I knew that I would have been insulting every Black person in the world (if I hadn’t).”

Former US President Barack Obama said Poitier “epitomised dignity and grace” and had “singular talent”. He added that the actor revealed “the power of movies to bring us closer together” and “opened doors for a generation of actors”.

US broadcaster and journalist Oprah Winfrey also paid tribute, saying: “For me the greatest of the ‘Great Trees’ has fallen,” adding the actor “had an enormous soul I will forever cherish”.

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