Sidney Poitier was not only one of the greatest actors ever to grace the screen, but a trailblazing legend who inspired entire generations of actors. He passed on Friday at the age of 94, leaving behind a legacy of classic films that have entertained and enlightened audiences for years.
Poitier was the first bonafide Black movie star and the first to win the Oscar for Best Actor. He was a transformational figure who inspired people all over the world with his films, his elegant manner and his gentle yet powerful speaking voice, as well as the humility he showed despite his phenomenal achievements.
In his debut in No Way Out, the film noir classic from 1950, Poitier played a doctor at a time when Black doctors were rarely seen in films. That movie tackled injustices that Poitier himself would courageously address throughout his very distinguished career in films like Blackboard Jungle and 1958’s The Defiant Ones which paired him with Tony Curtis and earned Poitier his first Oscar nomination. It was the very first nod for a Black man, and Poitier would go on to win five years later for Lilies of the Field for which he gave a beautiful, heartfelt speech.
A huge box office star in the 1960s (he was the first solo above-the-title Black movie star), Poitier toplined many of that decade’s most iconic films, including A Raisin in the Sun (also performed the same role previously on Broadway), A Patch of Blue, To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Poitier later began directing movies, including the 1974 classic Uptown Saturday Night, in which he starred alongside Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Flip Wilson, and Richard Pryor. In 1980, Poitier directed the comedy classic Stir Crazy, which for many years was the top-grossing film by a Black filmmaker. A lifelong activist and diplomat, Poitier would act less over the years as he occupied his time with other passions, including his family, as he was a devoted husband, father, and grandfather.
Poitier was known as a warm and approachable person who engaged with fans and was beloved by his peers. In 2002, he was honored with an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement and thanked those whose shoulders he stood upon. He won countless other awards for his unique and timeless contributions to culture, including a Kennedy Center Honor, a Presidential Medal of Freedom (America’s highest civilian honor) awarded by President Barack Obama, a Knighthood granted by Queen Elizabeth, the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award, the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, and countless other acting awards and nominations. He was also the author of a bestselling autobiography, Measure of a Man, and a Grammy Award winner for the spoken word version of the book.
Poitier was a truly inspiring person who grew up poor and emigrated from the Bahamas to the United States at a time of massive racial inequity, though he still managed to rise to the highest levels of the entertainment industry. One of the most honored and celebrated stars of the 20th century, he remains an enduring figure who will be forever etched in our collective memory. R.I.P.