Celebrating Black Excellence: Sydney Poitier

Aidan Herklotz

 February is black history month, so it is fitting to be taking a glance at the the life of one of the most influential African-American film stars (and civil-rights activists) in American History–Sidney Poitier.

Sidney Poitier was born February 20, 1927, on Cat Island in the Bahamas, where his family owned a farm. He was born a a British citizen (which may or may not come into play later). Poitier stayed on Cat Island until he was 10, then he moved to Nassau (also in the Bahamas), where he experienced electricity, automobiles, and plumbing for the first time. He stayed in Nassau for 5 years, but when he was 15 he was sent to Miami, Florida, where his brother lived with his large family. He did not stay in Miami for too long though–when he was 16 he moved to New York City. Poitier was so infatuated with the American lifestyle, that he decided to represent it on the stage, and become an actor.

Poitier’s first attempt at acting did not go too well. He joined the North American Negro Theater, but was promptly rejected by the audiences. At this time, the prerequisite for black actors was a beautiful voice, but Sidney was tone-deaf. He took the next 6 months of his career to achieving theatrical success. While he did get initial gigs, one of the audience’s chief complaints was his “horrid” Bahamian accent, so he shed it. Eventually his hard work and personality changing paid off, and he got his breakout role in Blackboard Jungle (1955). From there, he could only go up.

After his breakout onto big screen, Sidney starred in a plethora of movies in the sixties, all ranging from the Defiant Ones, a 1958 crime drama (for which he became the first black actor to be nominated for an academy award), to Lilies of the Field, a 1963 drama (for which he became the first black person to win the best Actor Academy Award). He even starred in Disney’s Song of the South in 1948, which was a live action/animated musical movie (although he personally never did any actual singing).

Although all these praise and awards may sound very positive, this entire time Poitier was being criticized for his apparent “type-casting” as the stereotypical, idealized African-American man. This is most exemplified in 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming Home to Dinner”, where Poitier plays a black man dating a white woman with disapproving parents. Even though he was definitely type-cast for this role, it is arguably his most famous movie, specifically for this fact. Sydney was aware of this, but he felt conflicted on the matter. On one hand, Poitier wanted more varied roles, but on the other hand he wanted to set an example by challenging old stereotypes as a terrific black actor.

Acting was not Poitier’s only forte though. During his later career, Poitier became an ambassador for the Bahamas to Japan, a position he held from 1997 to 2007. He also directed several films in ‘70’s and ‘80’s, including 1980’s “Stir Crazy” (which as actually a t.v. show) and 1972’s “Buck and the Preacher.” One of my personal favorite facts about Sidney Poitier was that in 1974 Poitier was knighted by the Queen for his Civil-Rights achievements (I told you his British citizenship would come in later). Sidney Poitier is still alive today (which was a relief when researching his life), and he is living it up in the Bahamas.