Black Excellence

28 DOBE- Day 25: The Groundbreaker, Sidney Poitier

sidney poitier, black actors, black history, black history month, black excellence
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28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

[/vc_column_text][vc_separator color=”green” border_width=”3″][vc_column_text]“They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” One of the most famous lines from one of the most famous films (a film he refused to go south of the Mason-Dixon line to star in because of a problem he’d had with racists in Georgia with Harry Bellefonte), truly epitomizes this man…the powerful, proud black man, Sidney Poitier, who would not submit to the injustice of America’s ‘50s and ‘60s. A trait that made it possible for him to become the first black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor in 1963 for Lilies of the Field.

Sir Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927 in Miami, while his parents, Bahamian farmers who had property on Cat Island (not to be confused with Japan’s Cat Island, where cats outnumber people 6-to-1) were visiting. The youngest of eight, Poitier was born premature and actually had to remain in the States for several months before his parents could return to Bahamas.

He moved to Nassau when he was 10, then back to Miami at 15, as the family grew too large for comfort. His acting talents led him to travel to New York for greater opportunities to feed his larger ambitions.

Poitier moved to New York City at 16. He enlisted in the US Army for one year then pretended to be insane in order to get out. He hadn’t seen action, and most likely would not have, as most blacks during that period were relegated to do- nothing jobs, adding insult to the already segregated platoons—enlisted and commissioned white soldiers alike didn’t want to run the risk that black lives might gain medals for heroism, even in death. Especially in death.  

sidney poitier, black actors, black history, black history month, black excellence
Sidney Poitier and Nelson Mandela. AP PHOTO/SASA KRALJ

Finding work as a janitor and dishwasher, Pointier took classes at the American Negro Theater to hone his acting skills. One of the first things he’d need to do away with was his Bahamian accent, in order to better find work with an American audience.

While working at the American Negro Theater, Poitier met lifelong friend Harry Bellefonte, a superstar in his own right, and the two helped one another achieve further greatness onstage and off.

With a string of victories onstage in the ‘50s, Poitier soon moved onto films, earning his first Oscar nomination in 1958 for The Defiant Ones.

One of his most epic, controversial, and groundbreaking roles came with 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The film that breached the boundaries of what was acceptable, in an America that was not ready to change, during a year that included The Long Hot Summer of 1967—so called because of how heated protests and clashes with police had been. That year, Poitier had three films (the other two being To Sir, With Love and In the Heat of the Night), but by far the most controversial was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with an opening sequence showing Poitier’s character and Katharine Houghton’s locking (married) lips. This film, finished three weeks after the Loving V. Virginia Supreme Court case that legalized white/black marriages in all 50 states, seemed destined to come along at just the right time. Even today, the film carries a message of unity and love that America has not yet mastered.

sidney poitier, black actors, black history, black history month, black excellence

 

Since then, and even before, Poitier was and has been active in civil rights causes and events. Here’s a photo of him at the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963, with some other famous people you might recognize.

Sir Poitier was knighted in 1974, by Queen Elizabeth II. And today, on this, the 25th day of Black History Month, we celebrate him, his legacy, and his contributions to black excellence.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.