“If I’m remembered for having done a few good things, and if my presence here has sparked some good energies, that’s plenty.”
Sidney Poitier has sparked more than just some good energies, and we’re sure that we’ll remember him for more than just a few good things. Olive Films would like to wish a very happy 90th birthday to one of our favorite figures of classic cinema. His career is illustrious and prolific, and his life continues to inspire.
The son of a farmer and cab driver, Poitier grew up with almost no formal education on Cat Island in the central Bahamas. He had US citizenship because he was unexpectedly born during his parents’ trip to sell produce in Miami, so he decided to move to Miami at age 15.
“I couldn’t adjust to the racism in Florida. It was so blatant… I had never been so described as Florida described me.”
It didn’t take long for Poitier to encounter first-hand the racial injustice of Miami in the 1940s. These experiences would help carve his determination to pioneer more opportunities for black artists in the US. After a few years in Miami, he moved to New York City where he held down several odd jobs and taught himself to read on the side, all while living in a bus station bathroom. When he began to audition for theatrical roles, he realized that he was at a disadvantage not just because of the color of his skin, but also because of his Bahamian accent and tone-deafness. Just as he worked tirelessly to teach himself how to read, he also pushed himself to eliminate his accent and develop his famous, demanding stage presence. Soon, he earned the leading role in a Broadway production of Lysistrata.
His first film role came in 1950 with No Way Out, in which he plays a doctor treating two racist robbery suspects. The industry noticed his charisma and screen presence, and this film set a precedent for the types of roles Poitier would be offered for the next few decades. While he did receive roles with more depth (and screen-time) than what other black actors could hope for, he remained confined to a certain idealized character, more so than most of his white peers.
Pressure Point (1962)
Eventually, he began to take on leading roles of several films, such as The Defiant Ones (1958), in which he plays one of two escaped convicts (the other played by Tony Curtis) chained together, A Raisin in the Sun (1962), in which he stars as the iconic Walter Lee Younger, and Pressure Point (1962), in which he plays a psychiatrist examining the roots of racism in his young Nazi patient (Bobby Darin). In 1963, he became the first black actor to win an Oscar for a leading role, with his performance as a handyman who helps nuns build a desert church in Lilies of the Field (1963).
The Slender Thread (1965)
Throughout his prolific career, he continued to knock down racial barriers in mainstream Hollywood with films like The Slender Thread (1965), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and To Sir, With Love (1967). At the same time, he struggled with concerns and criticisms that he only functioned as a pawn for Hollywood to cast and then pat itself on the back. While it’s true that he was usually typecast as over-idealized concepts of black characters with little real depth, faults, or personality, he recognized the impact he could have with his unique position as the only black actor being cast in leading roles of films marketed toward the mainstream.
“History passes the final judgment.”
Seeking more agency and control over his career and the depiction of black people on the screen, Poitier transitioned into directing. With films like Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975), A Piece of the Action (1977), and most famously, Stir Crazy (1980), he helped to pave the way for roles for black artists behind the camera as well as the validity of black filmgoing audiences.
In recent years, Poitier’s public appearances have decreased in number, but his work and lasting legacy endure. He received the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, was appointed Bahamian ambassador to Japan in 1997, received an honorary Academy Award in 2002, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009, and received the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Fellowship in 2016.
We hope you take his 90th birthday today as an opportunity to reflect on your favorite Sidney Poitier films and think about the impact he’s had on the film industry.
February 20, 2017