(CMR) Sidney Poitier is being remembered by many as the actor who paved the way for other black actors after taking on roles that would make him Hollywood's first Black movie star and the first Black man to win the best actor Oscar. Poitier died on Friday at 94 years old.
Many of his best-known films explored racial tensions as Americans were grappling with social changes wrought by the civil rights movement, CNN reported. In 1967 alone, he appeared as a Philadelphia detective fighting bigotry in small-town Mississippi in “In the Heat of the Night” and a doctor who wins over his White fiancée's skeptical parents in “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.”
Poitier won the Oscar for 1963's “Lilies of the Field,” in which he played an itinerant laborer who helps a group of White nuns build a chapel.
During his early years in Hollywood, Poitier faced opposition from both White and Black people. As the lone Black leading man in 1960s Hollywood, he came under tremendous scrutiny, according to CNN. He was often hailed as a noble symbol of his race and endured criticism from some Black people who said he had betrayed them by taking sanitized roles and pandering to Whites.
But his dignified roles helped audiences of the 1950s and 1960s envision Black people not just as servants but as doctors, teachers, and detectives.
He also struggled for distribution among Whites in the south, and his roles in movies were limited to what White-run studios would produce.
Poitier refused to take demeaning roles. His first movie was the 1950's “No Way Out,” a noir film in which he played a young doctor who must treat a racist patient. That led to increasingly prominent roles as a reverend in the apartheid drama “Cry, the Beloved Country,” a troubled student in “Blackboard Jungle” and an escaped prisoner in “The Defiant Ones,” in which he and Tony Curtis were shackled together and forced to get along to survive. With that 1958 film, Poitier became the first Black man to be nominated for an Oscar.
In the 1970s, Poitier scaled back on acting and turned to directing, which he felt gave him more control over his film projects.
Poitier was born prematurely on February 20, 1927, in Miami, to Bahamian parents while they were on vacation in the United States. He grew up in the Bahamas, spending his early years around his father’s tomato farm on Cat Island before relocating to Nassau. Poitier returned to the U.S as a teenager and enlisted in the U.S. Army, and briefly served in a medical unit.
In the course of his public life, Poitier was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, two Golden Globe Awards (including a lifetime achievement honor in 1982), and a Grammy for narrating his autobiography, “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography,” published in 2000.