Why Sidney Poitier Is the Most Important Actor in American History

·4-min read

This commentary on the life and legacy of Sidney Poitier was first published in the 2006 BAFTA/LA Cunard Britannia Awards, as part of the organization’s lifetime achievement award tribute to the trailblazing star, who died Jan. 6 at the age of 94.

Is Sidney Poitier the most important actor in American history?

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One could quickly defend that question affirmatively simply with a newsreel of clips showing heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., from Birmingham to the March on Washington, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks; Olympians Tommy Smith and John Carlos with their fists in the 1968 Mexico City air; rabid segregationists Bull Connor, Lester Maddox and George Wallace; the sit-ins and the accompanying firehoses and attacking police dogs; the segregated public spaces, the high-profile Ku Klux Klan marches and their low-profile lynchings.

To any American film fan who lived through the Civil Rights revolution of the 1950s and ’60s, the importance of Sidney Poitier’s career can’t be overstated. Poitier’s the guy who proved the stupidity of racism in movie after movie — from the early 1950s film “No Way Out” to his role in a string of popular 1970s comedies — in theaters and drive-ins across America.

Sure, Brando redefined the craft, along with Dean and Clift. Chaplin expanded the artistic boundaries and the Duke personified John Ford’s mythical West, but Sidney Poitier redefined America and personified the truth about Black America’s quest for equality.

His gravitas and grandeur, his humanity and his humility, his ceaseless striving for dignity all had an enormous impact on America, changing American society and its film industry forever — and for better.

His influence was felt most powerfully when he stood on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1964. Recognized for his work in Ralph Nelson’s “Lilies of the Field,” he accepted the first Academy Award ever presented to a Black male actor in the Best Actor category (James Baskett had received an honorary Oscar for “Song of the South.”)

If we were still looking at that newsreel from those times, you’d see President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a few months after the Oscars, and then we’d see the exhumed bodies of murdered civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney a few weeks later.

The times, they were a-like-that.

Poitier’s personality impacted on American culture again when Poitier, not smiling this time, gritted his teeth as the fictional Detective Virgil Tibbs, facing down a very Bull Connor-ish southern cop played by Rod Steiger. He enunciated the holy rage of an entire race with the line, “They call me Mister Tibbs.”

Cue the timeline: That was in the Oscar-winning best picture “In the Heat of the Night,” which grabbed its five statuettes in April 1968, only days after King’s assassination.

Cut to Poitier today remaining thoroughly engaged in making the world a better place. He’s stepped out of the film frame and has both feet in the real world.

The honors continue to come Poitier’s way, from knighthood to an honorary Oscar. His civic duties continue as well, including Ambassadorships for the Bahamas and UNESCO.

Remarkably, given the pressures on Poitier to be “the Jackie Robinson of the movie business,” he didn’t fold under that impossible mantle. He didn’t turn bilious and strident as did many of his contemporaries, who, given the brutal circumstances of those times, can be forgiven for not matching Poitier’s inner strength. Where so many grew bitter, Poitier became wise and generous. As an accomplished film director and producer, he provided vehicles for a new generation of Black actors and filmmakers to prove their creativity and business chops.

I asked Poitier recently if it was a significant sign of progress that it took less than four years for a Black actor, Jamie Foxx, to pick up the best actor Oscar after it took nearly 40 for another, Denzel Washington, to achieve that honor. Poitier chuckled warmly and said, “Well, I guess that proves there’s no two ways about it.”

Could any of this have happened without Poitier’s brilliant and groundbreaking career? No guessing here: There’s no two ways about that either.

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