Former Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs Pays Tribute to Sidney Poitier: ‘His Light Was Very Bright’

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Cheryl Boone Isaacs, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, remembers Oscar winner Sidney Poitier as “a beautiful man, a creative individual, who gave a lot.”

Isaacs, who now serves as the founding director of the Sidney Poitier New American Film School at Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, talked poignantly and openly with Variety after learning the news of his passing on Friday at the age of 94.

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“Mr. Poitier’s light was very bright,” Isaacs says. “He probably wasn’t aware of it, because most people with a lot of light are not because they’re busy being who they are.”

Poitier was the first Black man to be nominated for best actor for his performance in “The Defiant Ones” (1958), later becoming the first to win best actor for “Lilies of the Field” (1963). Recalling the night of his historic win, Isaacs says, “I remember it extremely well, certainly the pride in the fact that Sidney touched all of us, especially in the Black community.”

Like Poitier, Isaacs also made history within the Academy, becoming the first Black president elected in July 2013 and re-elected in 2015.

It would take 38 years before Denzel Washington would stand on the stage winning best actor for “Training Day” (2001), the same evening that Halle Berry won best actress for “Monster’s Ball” (2001) and Poitier was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy. “I lost my mascara [on my face] that night,” Isaacs shares. “I can still remember Denzel holding up his Oscar while Sidney was in the sidebox.”

During the conversation, the memories of that evening 20 years ago begin to flood back and overcome Isaacs with emotion. “I’ll miss him,” she says.

When it comes to young people, particularly Black creatives who are coming up in this evolving and changing Hollywood setting, the new director at ASU Film School wants nothing less than respect for Poitier’s career. “We are all dedicated to continuing to grow that legacy of excellence and inclusion in a very broad yet specific way,” Isaacs says. “I wish for everyone to carry this torch of light that Sidney bestowed upon us — the light that unites all of us. It lets us have a freedom of expression and the allowance for all storytellers to continue that legacy.”

Isaacs previously served as president of theatrical marketing for New Line Cinema, where she oversaw numerous box office successes, including “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and “Rush Hour.” Before joining New Line in 1997, she was executive vice president of worldwide publicity for Paramount Pictures, where she orchestrated publicity campaigns for best picture winners such as “Forrest Gump” (1994) and “Braveheart” (1995).

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