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The first Black performer to win an Oscar for best actor during a time of racial upheaval, Sidney Poitier’s death at 94 represented the passing of an iconic legend who passionately, yet quietly broke down racist stereotypes.
While Malcolm X and Dr. King were using direct action and fiery speeches to force a racial reckoning during the 60s, Poitier was quietly altering the way Americans viewed Black people. Most importantly, he positively uplifted the self-image of Black people in a country that destroyed the connection to our collective past.
For instance, Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael), coined and defined the term “Black Power” in 1967. He wrote “the goal of black self-determination and black self-identity—Black Power—is full participation in the decision-making processes affecting the lives of black people, and recognition of the virtues in themselves as black people.” (excerpt from “Black Power”, 1967).
When people think of Black Power, images of Dr. King or Malcolm X immediately come to mind.
Though he was actively involved in the civil rights movement, the legendary Sidney Poitier didn’t lead marches or combat police brutality on the streets. Yet, he was the first to showcase the virtues of Black people on a national scale, representing the other side of Black Power.
From humble beginnings to Hollywood star
Born in Miami, Poitier grew up in both the U.S. and on a tomato farm in the Bahamas with his immigrant parents. Not accustomed to the violently suppressive racial segregation entrenched in the South, the groundbreaking star moved to New York at the age of 16 with $3 in his pocket.
Unlike most trivial roles given to Black actors in the 1950s and 60s, Poitier was known for only choosing characters who portrayed the best of Black excellence. He felt “as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” Poitier once said.
He went on to win the Academy Award for best actor in 1964, according to the Oscars website.
Rising up to become one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, and ranked as one of the top five male actors at the time, Poitier continuously portrayed heroic characters often fighting against racism.
A trailblazer who broke racial barriers
In the 50s he launched his acting career playing in films with racial undertones.
The 1950 film “No Way Out” represented his first substantial film role, in which he played a doctor persecuted by a racist patient. Yet, it was the 1958 film “The Defiant Ones” that planted him as a fixture in Hollywood and earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor, a first for a Black performer. In the film, he played a prisoner on the run who’s handcuffed to a racist fellow prisoner.
A few years later, in 1964, he finally achieved an award that wouldn’t be given to another Black actor until Denzel Washington roughly 40 years later. Poitier’s role as a handyman helping a group of German nuns construct a church in the desert in “Lilies of the Field” earned him the Academy Award for best actor.
During a time when civil rights leaders were just beginning to pierce the consciousness of white Americans, Poitier was quietly determined to break the stereotypes in media that almost always cast Black people in inferior, servile or thuggish roles. The humble actor used his own non-confrontational brand of racial diplomacy to change peoples’ perceptions of Black Americans through film.
“History will pinpoint me as merely a minor element in an ongoing major event, a small if necessary energy,” he once wrote. “But I am nonetheless gratified at having been chosen.”