By John H. Foote
Groundbreaking Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier passed away this week, his life dedicated to breaking ground in film for African Americans.
Actor, director, writer, Civil Rights spokesman, Poitier was a mountain of dignity during some of the most turbulent times in America history, always carrying himself with confidence and humility as though he knew inherently all eyes were on him.
The first true black movie star, Poitier exploded out of the fifties with an Oscar nominated performance in Stanley Kramer’s magnificent The Defiant One’s (1958). The film explored two convicts chained together, one black, the other white (Tony Curtis), as they move through the American south backwoods, learning to work together to survive, eventually forging a friendship and deep respect. This was the first truly great race relations film, followed by several in the sixties, most featuring Poitier.
He filled the screen with dignity and decency, with an intensity that was sometimes alarming in its execution. This was, clearly, a man who would not be held down by his color, who would demand equality wherever he was.
Poitier forced audiences to see the man, not the colour and his great legacy remains the films he made primarily through the late fifties and sixties.
Lilies of the Field (1963), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and To Sir With Love (1967) were each bolstered brilliantly by his performances, and he won the Academy Award for the former, becoming the first African American to do so. He had been previously nominated for The Defiant Ones and more than a few eyebrows were raised when with three deserving performances in 1967, in a single year, he was snubbed for all three. He went toe to toe with Rod Steiger, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in In the Heat of the Night, portraying a Philadelphia detective in the Deep South coming face to face with intense racial prejudice. Gradually he and the local law, Steiger, come to admire, like and most of all respect one another.
In To Sir With Love, Poitier portrayed an American teacher who is hired to teach in London, England at a ghetto school, but for whites. Again a brilliant performance as a teacher whom his students come to love, bringing to the role a deep warmth and sensitivity, teaching the angry young people to love and accept people for who they are. For this he again deserved a nomination.
The weakest of the trio of films he made that year was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, about an affluent older couple who host a dinner with their daughter and her new boyfriend, a doctor, but a black doctor portrayed by Poitier. At the time, 1967 the film was quite a sensation, and watching Poitier crackle with electricity in his scenes with Hepburn and Tracey confirmed he was indeed the real deal, and among the very best actors at work in Hollywood.
So how does an actor give two of the year’s best performances and NOT get nominated? Many critics of the time admitted that they felt a chill.
In the seventies he continued to work, but more and more stepped behind the camera with comedies for black audiences, many of them huge hits, and would cross over to white audiences. Stir Crazy (1980) with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder was such a film and was a monster hit at the box office and with film critics.
In 2002, he was gifted with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Academy Awards, and incredibly on the same night for the first time a black man and woman won the Leading Oscars for Actor. Denzel Washington took Best Actor for his corrupt cop in Training Day (2001) while Halle Berry took best Actress for Monster’s Ball (2001). It seemed pre-ordained that the wins would happen on this night.
Every major black actor owes a debt to Poitier because he made their careers possible. Since 2000, 46 nominations have been awarded to Black actors, with 13 Oscars being awarded for their performances.
Add that to the extraordinary legacy of this great man.
Such a loss, but in the end what an astonishing life.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.