Sidney Poitier: a pioneering black film star and activist | Show biz

Former US President Barack Obama presents the late actor Sidney Poitier with the Medal of Freedom at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington on August 12, 2009. – Reuters file pic

LOS ANGELES, January 8 – Sidney Poitier, who has passed away at the age of 94, was a pioneering black movie star who opened the doors to racial minorities in cinema decades before the #OscarsSoWhite and Black Lives Matter movements.

The pioneering actor became the first black male star nominated for an Academy Award with 1958 The provocateurs and, six years later, was the first to win the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Field lilies.

Rounding up his historic award, Poitier told the glamorous audience of mostly white contemporaries that it had been “a long journey up to this point” – but his success would not be matched until 38 years later, when Denzel Washington won his role. main in Coaching Day.

Poitier, who died Thursday night at his Los Angeles home, achieved mainstream popularity with a series of groundbreaking roles during a time of great racial tension in America in the 1950s and 1960s.

He balanced success with a sense of duty to choose projects that tackled bigotry and stereotypes, including his 1967 classics. Guess who’s coming to dinner and In the heat of the Night.

Poitier received an Honorary Oscar in 2002 for his “extraordinary performances” on the big screen and his “dignity, style and intelligence” out of it.

“I accept this award on behalf of all the African American actors and actresses who have come before me through the difficult years and on whose shoulders I have had the privilege to stand to see where I may go,” said Poitier.

Poitier also praised the “visionary choices of a handful of American producers, directors and studio bosses” who were not afraid to defend the cause of equality, despite the difficulties such a position may have caused them. .

‘I will always chase you, Sidney’

Coincidentally, Poitier received her Honorary Oscar in 2002 the same night Washington won the Best Actor award, which was also the night Halle Berry became the first – and only – winner for Best African Actress. American.

In his acceptance speech, Washington paid a heartfelt tribute to Poitier, saying: “I will always follow in your footsteps.

In a statement to AFP following news of his death, Washington said “It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend. He was a gentle man and he opened doors for all of us that were closed for years.

Viola Davis, herself an Oscar-winning actress, shared a similar note of admiration for Poitier’s barrier-breaking life, saying that her “dignity, normality, strength, excellence and sheer electricity … we showed that we as black people matter !!! ”


Born in the state of Florida, in the southern United States, in 1927, where his father, a tomato farmer, sold his produce, young Sidney and his family returned to the Bahamas, where he grew up in poverty.

Double national of the Bahamas and the United States, he tasted cinema from his youth on his Caribbean island before dropping out of school at 13 and returning to Miami at 15 to join his brother Cyril.

It was there that the impressionable young man first tasted racial discrimination, an experience that left an indelible mark on him.

Poitier quickly moved to New York where he worked as a dishwasher and waiter, apparently sleeping in the paid toilets at the bus station as he tried to shake off a meager existence in the difficult city.

During World War II, Poitier joined the United States Army as a physiotherapist until 1945 when he returned to New York, his heart being to become an actor.

Poitier worked to lose his Caribbean accent and adopt an American accent, which earned him his first acting job on stage as an understudy for song star Harry Belafonte in the 1945s. Days of our youth, before making her Broadway debut in an all-black production of Lysistrata.

Racial harmony

In 1950, the successful young actor starred in his first film, “No Way Out”, quickly followed by classics such as Jungle blackboard and Edge of town.

From the years 1957 Something of value – which portrays the anti-colonial Mau Mau uprising in Kenya – his choices have turned more systematically towards themes of racial harmony, as seen in Chicago-set A raisin in the sun (1961) and the Mississippi Murder Mystery In the heat of the Night (1967).

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Poitier stepped behind the camera to direct, featuring black actors in traditionally white roles, before moving on to light comedies starring Gene Wilder (Stir Crazy) and Bill Cosby (Phantom Dad).

Poitier took a decade-long hiatus before returning to the 1988 crime thriller Shoot to kill, but rarely graced the big screen after that.

On television, he has portrayed icons of history such as South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, and the first black United States Supreme Court judge, Thurgood Marshall.

And in 1997, he took on a ceremonial post as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan.

He was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom – the country’s highest civilian honor by Barack Obama in 2009.

Poitier had been married to his second wife Joanna since 1976 and had six children as well as numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren. AFP

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