Sidney Poitier made his film debut in the 1950 film No Way Out and would go on to forever change Hollywood. He broke the color barrier and was the first African American to win an Academy Award for best actor (for his role in Lilies of the Field). Critics have applauded Poitier as sophisticated, charismatic, and cerebral. He played roles that African Americans could be proud of and refused to play stereotypical roles. He forced white Americans to see the humanity in black people and opened the door for many black actors to have a choice in the roles they played.
In the Oscar-winning film In the Heat of the Night, Poitier played a black detective who is embroiled in a murder investigation. In one scene, a rich white racist plantation owner slaps him and Poitier immediately slaps him back. This was provocative cinema and encouraged a generation of black people to demand respect no matter who was in the room. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier plays a doctor who is engaged to a white woman. Her father does not approve. While it was filmed, interracial marriages were still banned in many states before being struck down by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, 6 months before the film hit theaters.
In addition to his acting, Poitier was a capable director, having a knack for creating comedies that showed the joy of black people. His films Uptown Saturday Night and Stir Crazy were box office hits, with Stir Crazy grossing over $100 million. Poiter was the first black director to accomplish this feat. In 2001, he earned an Academy Honorary Award “in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.” In 2009, former President Obama awarded Poitier the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. On screen and off, Sidney Poitier showed us what we all can aspire to be.
“Living consciously involves being genuine; it involves listening and responding to others honestly and openly; it involves being in the moment.” – Sidney Poitier