CLASS AND DETERMINATION DEFINED THE LATE SIDNEY POITIER
By: Victoria L. Coman
"Sir” is the most befitting way to describe the cultural icon, the late Sir Sidney Poitier KBE -- Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The grace, kindness, and stately yet quiet command of respect that the Bahamian-American and Oscar-winning actor, film director, Army veteran, author, diplomat, and activist was just understood.
Poitier passed away on Jan. 6 at his Los Angeles home at the age of 94, leaving behind a wife of more than 45 years, six adult children, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren among other family members. He also leaves behind countless friends, peers, and mentees.
People referred to Poitier as “Sir” for many reasons. Some said it as a show of respect for an elder, others said it because it was the name for which his unruly students in the 1967 Film “To Sir With Love” eventually addressed him, and some said it in recognition of his role as a Bahamian ambassador to Japan. The most formal reason, however, is because he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974, thus the "Sir" and "KBE" are rightfully placed before and after his name.
Poitier was born on Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami as the youngest of seven children to two Bahamian tomato farmers who traveled back and forth from their homeland to Florida to sell tomatoes. Throughout his life, Poitier overcame obstacles including being born premature and into poverty, having to learn to read as an adult, and even having to soften his Bahamian accent to capture and deliver ground-breaking roles that redefined how black people were viewed by the public.
Becoming an actor was an unlikely path that had a hand in Poitier’s quest to learn how to read as a young man.
"I had absolutely no interest at all in becoming an actor," Poitier shared during a 2014 class of the Academy of Achievement. "I was a dishwasher. I was, at that point, content to be a dishwasher because I did not have the wherewithal to do anything else.”
Poitier had left school as a pre-teen with limited understanding of the written word. Even after serving in the Army, he still needed to master such oft-underappreciated skills as navigating through a city that had streets with names.
"I really had to learn to read," Poitier said. "That, I knew, was my goal."
In a 2013 CBS This Morning interview, Poitier recalled how an elderly waiter at one of the restaurants where he worked as a dishwasher tutored him on many evenings.
"Every night, the place is closed, everyone's gone, and he sat there with me, week after week after week," Poitier shared. "I learned a lot, a lot. And then things began to happen."
Poitier would go on to gain an apprenticeship at The American Negro Theater before starring in "Lysistrata" in 1946 and "Anna Lucasta" in 1947. In 1950, he landed his first role playing a doctor in "No Way Out." Poitier's firsts continued in 1959 when he became the first black man nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor for his role in "The Defiant Ones." In 1964, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as an Army soldier and handyman in "Lilies of the Field." He was part of another groundbreaking moment in 1965 when he became the first black actor to kiss a white woman while portraying an office worker in "A Patch of Blue." Three of his most memorable roles were in 1967 films including that of a teacher in "To Sir With Love," a doctor who faced the scorn of his white fiancé’s family in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and as a police detective in a small Mississippi town in which he delivered his famous line "They call me Mr. Tibbs!" in the movie "In The Heat of the Night." Poitier's performances also include the notable 1955 film "Blackboard Jungle" as well as the 1959 Broadway production and the 1961 film version of the classic "A Raisin in the Sun.”
In a 1988 Newsweek interview, Poitier shared what his experience was like as a black actor during the early days.
"I made films when the only other black on the lot was the shoeshine boy," he said.
Poitier's directorial pursuits hatched films including "Buck and the Preacher" in 1972, "Uptown Saturday Night" in 1974 with co-directors Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby, "Let's Do It Again" in 1975, and the 1980 film "Stir Crazy.”
As an author, Poitier released books including: "This Life" (1980), "The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography" (2000) and "Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-granddaughter" (2009).
Not only did Poitier shine in the arts, but he also served during the Civil Rights Movement, working with his friend, Belafonte. In one instance, the men raised money to help support the Freedom Summer Project (also called the Mississippi Summer Project) in 1964, a movement to increase voter registration and improve the education of black Mississippians that was sponsored by Civil Rights organizations including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The two men also were among celebrities who attended the March on Washington in 1963.
Poitier’s awards have also included the 1992 AFI Life Achievement Award, 1995 Kennedy Center Honors, 2001 NAACP Image Award’s Hall of Fame Award, the 2002 Honorary Oscar “For his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence,” and the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by former President Barak Obama in 2009.
Although Poitier is most widely known for redefining how blacks were portrayed in film, he often stressed that he not only be remembered for his race
“I deal with race-based questions all the time, but I resent them,” Poitier shared with Oprah Winfrey in an interview in 2000. “I will not let the press thrust me into a definition by feeding me only race questions. I’ve established that my concern with race is substantive. But, at the same time, I am not all about race.”
Poitier expressed that he wanted people to recognize him for other things such as his being an artist, a man, an American, a diplomat, and a contemporary.