UP EXPERT OPINION: Sidney Poitier was Hollywood’s first black superstar

Posted on January 25, 2022

In his first weekly Business Day column for the year, Professor Adekeye Adebajo, who has joined the University of Pretoria as a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, writes about the improbable fairy tale of US actor Sidney Poitier’s success.

Pioneering Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier, who died earlier this month aged 94, was Hollywood’s first black global megastar, appearing in more than 40 films.

His 2000 autobiography, The Measure of A Man, recalled how his success had been achieved against seemingly insurmountable odds. Poitier’s parents, Evelyn and Reginald, were tomato farmers on the poverty-ridden Cat Island in the Bahamas.

In 1964 the charismatic Poitier became the first black actor to win a lead actor Oscar, a record matched only 38 years later when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry triumphed in the same category at the 2002 Oscars, at which Poitier also won a lifetime award. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2009, having been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974.

Poitier radically changed perceptions of black people from the 1950s as the American civil rights struggle raged, forcing the gilded gates of Hollywood open to other black actors. Even by the illusory standards of the fabled “American dream”, Poitier’s success was an improbable fairy tale.

He left school in the Bahamas after only 18 months, and worked as a water boy for labourers. At 15 he moved to Miami to live with an older brother, washing dishes and digging ditches, and then moved to New York’s Afropolitan Harlem district, sleeping rough in bus terminals, public toilets and on rooftops. He washed dishes, plucked chickens, and carried luggage.

However, Poitier imbibed the cultural diversity of the city’s lively theatre and jazz scene. The barely literate Bahamian applied to act at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, where his thick Caribbean accent twice led to failed auditions.

Determined to succeed, he bought a cheap radio and spent hours imitating the American accents of the announcers. His first break came in an all-black production of the Greek play Lysistrata in 1946, before he exchanged the glitz of Broadway for the glamour of Hollywood. 

Tall, dignified and strikingly handsome, Poitier was comfortable in his own skin, having grown up as a self-confident youth in the Bahamas. He took roles that depicted strong black characters with “refinement, education and accomplishment”, suppressing his sexuality to calm the fears of squeamish white audiences.

The then 23-year old Poitier got his Hollywood break in the 1950 movie No Way Out about a black doctor who is harassed by a racist white patient.

He strongly backed America’s civil rights struggle, marching on Washington in 1963. A consciousness of the ancestral home developed after Poitier spent time in SA filming the 1951 Cry, the Beloved Country, becoming a lifelong opponent of apartheid. He later portrayed SA liberation hero Nelson Mandela in a 1997 television movie, Mandela and De Klerk.  Another 1957 film, Something of Value, had seen Poitier playing a Mau Mau sympathiser in a Kenya fighting for independence from British rule.

As the Civil Rights Act was being passed in 1964 Poitier won the leading actor Oscar for the 1963 Lilies of the Field, a low-budget film about an itinerant handyman who helped German nuns build a chapel in the Arizona desert. By now he had become the world’s biggest box-office attraction, with three blockbusters in 1967: To, Sir with Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  

Poitier married African-American model Juanita Hardy in 1950, and they had four daughters. The couple divorced after 15 years amid revelations that Poitier had conducted a nine-year affair with African-American actress and co-star Diahann Carroll. He married Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus in 1976, with whom he had two more daughters.

Poitier was a quiet revolutionary who used charm and grace rather than a pitchfork to convince white audiences to embrace a common humanity.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in Business Day on 23 January 2022.

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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