Actor and civil rights pioneer Sidney Poitier dies at 94

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Bahamian-American actor, film director, activist and ambassador Sidney Poitier, known for his groundbreaking acting work in the 1950s and 1960s, has died at the age of 94, the Bahamian Foreign Ministry confirmed on Friday.

He was one of the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema.

Before he took on his landmark role in Norman Jewison’s 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, he had already been in front of the camera for 17 years. By then, he had appeared in 25 films, including his breakthrough performances in The Defiant Ones (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959) and Paris Blues (1961), all multiple award-winning films.

Still, In the Heat of the Night can be seen as the artist’s legacy, not only because of Poitier’s outstanding performance in the role of detective Virgil Tibbs but also because the drama was terrific cinematic support for the civil rights movement that had formed in the country since the late 1950s.

Through the racist swamp

The film is set in a small town in the southern state of Mississippi, where a wealthy investor is murdered. Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), who happens to be at the city’s train station, is arrested, suspected of being the perpetrator only because he is Black.

When it turns out that Tibbs is actually a top homicide inspector from Philadelphia, the local police chief asks him to get involved in the case. Tibbs reluctantly agrees, leading him to deal with the small town’s pervading racial intolerance.

To this day, In the Heat of the Night remains one of the best films ever produced to deal with the issue of racism.

From dishwasher to Hollywood star

Sidney Poitier was born in Miami, Florida in 1927. His parents were simple farmers from the Bahamas, where Poitier essentially grew up. He was sent to live with his brother in Miami at the age of 15.

At 18, he went to New York, where he discovered the world of theatre. At the time he could barely read. He worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant, where a Jewish waiter taught him to read after work.

A successful audition ultimately landed Poitier a spot with the American Negro Theater in Harlem, and shortly thereafter he made the leap to Broadway, where Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck discovered him in 1950.

An Oscar for best actor

Poitier was the first Black man to become a movie star in Hollywood and to kiss a white woman in the film, A Patch of Blue (1965). Many of Poitier’s films dealt directly or indirectly with racism.

Poitier played a high school student who supports an idealistic teacher against hostile students in Richard Brooks’ 1955 film Blackboard Jungle.

In Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, released in 1958, he escapes from prison together with a white racist inmate played by Tony Curtis. In the course of their escape, the two learn to put aside their prejudice and eventually become friends.

And in Lilies of the Field (1963), directed by Ralph Nelson, he portrayed a casual labourer who helps a group of nuns build a chapel. With this role, he became the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor.

In 1967, Sidney Poitier was named Box Office Star of the Year, having starred in three commercial hits in a row that year: To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Working as a director

Building on his success as an actor, Poitier began directing in the early 1970s, surprising his fans by filming mostly quite successful comedies, such as Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975), Stir Crazy (1980) and Ghost Dad (1990).

Poitier’s good looks and confident and cultivated demeanour contributed to making him one of the most memorable Hollywood stars. In 1999, he was included among the American Film Institute’s list of greatest screen legends in US film history.

Some critics, however, noted that Poitier’s roles were very often overly idealized Black characters: good-hearted, proud, strong and almost always without personal weaknesses. Poitier’s dilemma was that, on the one hand, he wanted to play different roles, but on the other, he wanted to contribute to the Black community through his acting.

This was particularly evident in the movie In the Heat of the Night. Poitier only agreed to sign on to the role after a significant change was made to the script: In the film, Virgil Tibbs questions an important white representative of the city and asks him whether the murdered man had been in his house. The white man slaps him. Poitier insisted that his character Virgil Tibbs should slap him back, and even obtained a guarantee from the producers that the scene would never be cut out of the movie.

Well-respected and award-winning

Poitier became a role model for the African American community, campaigning for equality beyond the screen, supporting the civil rights movement and later also serving as UNESCO ambassador for the Bahamas.

He was knighted in the United Kingdom in 1974 and was also recognized with several lifetime achievement awards, including an honorary Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA.

In 2009, US President Barack Obama awarded Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civil honour.

By then, he had largely withdrawn from the film industry and public life, enjoying retirement with his family.

In January 2021, Arizona State University named its film school after the groundbreaking film icon.

A Poitier quote on the website of the Sidney Poitier New American Film School reflects his inspiring thirst for knowledge: “No one knows all there is to know. The task is to learn as much as you can about as much as you can.”

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