Sidney Poitier, according to New York Times’ writer Wesley Morris, was “as crucial in the odyssey of freedom and equality for African-Americans as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther Jr.”
Mr. Poitier died on January 8. He was 94 years old, and no cause of death was reported at the time.
As Mr. Morris put it: “A clear descendant of Douglass’s rhetorical brilliance, Mr. Poitier spoke the words of white people. He projected an image that created what is now a galaxy of other black actors, doing acting as diverse and tiered as you might observe in a shopping mall.”
In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first African-American man to win an Oscar for best actor. That Hollywood moment nearly six decades ago did not just make history but, as the Times put it, tied together two cultural institutions: Mr. Poitier himself and the Academy Awards.
A distinguished career
Three years later in 1967, three of the celebrated actor’s most memorable films were released. Their titles, “To Sir, With Love,” and “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs.” In each, reviewer Helena Andrews-Dwyer recalled, Mr. Poitier played dignified characters who dealt with racism “with a resolve that was revolutionary without being militant”.
She added, “No one can forget his vivid detective-character response to a racial slur in “The Heat of the Night.” That response reflected the soul of the blossoming numbers of anti-discrimination advocates and supporters of racial justice in mid- 20th century America. Actor Poitier’s response was succinct and sweet. It was simply: “They call me MISTER Tibbs.”
Ms. Andrews-Dyer wrapped it all up in her Post tribute, by recalling that Sidney Poitier won a second Oscar in 2002 “in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.”
The award was presented to Mr. Poitier by famed actor Denzel Washington, who said: “Before Sidney, African-American actors had to take supporting roles in studio films that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country.”
Recognition at the highest level
In 2009, Sidney Poitier received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, the first African-American President. It’s appropriate, in conclusion, that we frame this portrait of Mr. Poitier’s distinguished career with the words of Times pundit Wesley Morris:
“Like Barack Obama, Mr. Poitier was punctual, culturally. He became the star he did because he was the star we desperately needed him to be.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More