Bahamian-American actor Sydney Poitier was a man of many firsts.
He was the first Black man ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor and the first Black man ever to be seen kissing a white woman on screen. And most notably, Poitier was one of the first Black actors to be widely accepted by mainstream audiences during a time when it was unheard of.
In the 1950s, as Poitier’s career was just starting to pick up, the actor was doing the seemingly impossible: utilizing his freedom to choose his roles carefully.
You know how the saying goes… art imitates life, and life imitates art. And at the time of Poitier’s rise to fame, both reality and Hollywood were full of racial injustices. The main roles Americans saw Black people portraying upheld negative racial stereotypes, like the Mammy or servant tropes.
But when you look back at Poitier’s film credits, from In the Heat of the Night to the now-classic A Raisin in the Sun, many of Poitier’s roles have one thing in common, and that’s the remarkable dignity of every character Poitier masks.
While Black audiences, in particular, can argue that some of these roles upheld an unattainable standard of perfection, as Poitier progressed in his career, he found ways to take on roles that represented the tension between playing by the rules and getting into trouble.
Without a doubt, Poitier set the stage for Black actors to not only follow in his footsteps but also to carve their own path and tap into roles that allowed them to be full-bodied characters. We have so much to praise Sidney Poitier for and acknowledge his legacy, but without a doubt, he has helped build bridges and tear down barriers so that Black creatives could cross over.
Sidney Poitier’s trailblazing career will always be remembered for changing racial attitudes that heavily persisted in our country. And honestly, who can say what the film and TV industry would be like today without him?
So here’s to Sidney Poitier, and all his greatness that he so graciously shared with the world.