Critics – The Hollywood Reporter
Sidney Poitier went so Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Denzel Washington could run.
No other black actor in mid-century Hollywood did more to change perceptions and expand representation beyond the degrading stereotypes that had long prevailed. His smoldering charismatic screen presence provided a non-militant but no doubt no less powerful argument for black personality and humanity, just as the civil rights movement began to gain ground.
Poitier, whose death at the age of 94 was confirmed on Friday, became the first black performer to win an Oscar for Best Actor for his role as a traveling all-rounder helping a bunch of Central European nuns build a chapel for the poor Mexican American townspeople in a desert farm in Arizona. society in the 1963s The lilies of the field.
The inherent sanctity of this role and others played by Poitier prompted some black cultural commentators to criticize the actor for portraying characters who reassured rather than challenged the white hegemony that marginalized their existence.
But representation for any minority is inevitably a step-by-step process, and compassion, proud self-possession, moral strength, even the forgiveness of racial injustice exhibited by Poitier’s hereditary characters made his work an important fundamental building block for more dimensional treatment of black characters in Hollywood.
Poitiers’ only predecessor among the Oscar winners was Hattie McDaniel, who won Best Supporting Actress as the devoted housekeeper Mammy in Gone With the Wind, a character that is largely mocked as a continuation of the restrictive domestic stereotype. The progress of the 24 years that separated their victories – embodied in such a resolute strength of character by Poitier – is undeniable.
My own formative impressions of Poitier and his crucial importance in the stony history of the Hollywood representation were, above all, formed by one film. As a child, he grew up as a Catholic in a white Australia that had only begun to reckon with his brutal crimes against the country’s indigenous people, and so The lilies of the field on TV hit me with an emotional force that still elicits tears when the film shows up on TCM.
But so did my first encounters with films such as, perhaps, on a more subliminal level No way out, Cry the beloved Cousample, In the heat of the night and – a personal sentimental favorite – To Sir, With Love, in which Poitier played a doctor, a South African priest, a Philadelphia detective and a teacher, respectively, determined to make a difference in a tough London high school.
Poitier set a good example, choosing parts that significantly expanded the view of professional roles. Black men could fill an intolerant white society, often confronting virulent racism with an entrapped anger that spoke much. That he brought to the equation matinee-idol looks, unspeakable elegance, a velvety spoken voice, and penetrating intelligence made him even more convincing an advocate of consciousness and change.
The movie that made him a star and gave him his first Oscar nomination was the 1958s The defiant, in which he played a fugitive prisoner in the American southern state, inconveniently chained to Tony Curtis’ white racist prisoner – because “the guard had a sense of humor.”
Poitier’s appearance as Walter Lee Younger in the 1961 film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s now classic play about a black family seeking to improve their conditions in the changing residential landscape of southern Chicago, A raisin in the sun, was another milestone. This drama brought openness and emotional insight to its reflections on housing discrimination and the complexity of assimilation, even within an African-American family.
In the 1965s A piece of blue, he played an educated man whose friendship with Elizabeth Hartman’s illiterate, blind 18-year-old encounters hostility in a racially divided America.
One of the biggest eye-openers of Poitier’s landmark 1960s film was Guess who’s coming to dinner. In the 1967 Stanley Kramer drama, he again played a doctor, and this time he did not encounter exposed hatred, but the more latent racism that was aroused when his white fiancée invites him home to meet his wealthy liberal parents – the game of longtime screen partners who were an institution of worldly whites Hollywood, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
The film’s portrayal of an interracial relationship was groundbreaking at a time when it was still illegal in many U.S. states, and by capturing opposition from well-educated, seemingly open-minded parents – both white and black – to the central union, it forced many people to reconsider. their own views on issues of race and equality.
The back-to-back commercial successes of Guess who’s coming to dinner, In the heat of the night and To Sir, With Love made Poitier the best ticket star in 1968, a performance unimaginable a decade earlier.
While his legacy as a game-changing representational force was later shared by others like Cicely Tyson and Harry Belafonte, Poitier, more than any other black actor, led the charge. His journey from a child on a tomato farm in the Bahamas to a beloved elderly statesman in Hollywood who expands to direct with comedies such as Uptown Saturday night and Stir insanely, was unparalleled. There will never be one like him.