On January 6, 2022, Sidney Poitier passed away at 94 years old. He was an extremely influential actor and pioneer for Black people in Hollywood. In the wake of his passing, we are able to examine his long life of accomplishments and the path he forged for generations of Black actors after him.
Poitier acted in most of his films throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but continued his work into the 2000s. He was the first Black man to win a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, which was a huge feat given that his industry was dominated by white men.
One of the reasons Poitier was so remarkable was his refusal to act in racist and stereotypical roles, which was the case for the majority of roles available to Black people at the time. By refusing to play these roles, Poitier was able to instead personify Black characters, including a doctor, a reverend, and other dignified and moral parts. The movies he starred in often acknowledged the racism that his character would likely have to face.
Poitier is well known for when he fought for a script change in the film In the Heat of the Night, in which he played a homicide detective. The script wanted one of the white suspects to slap Poitier’s character in the face, so Poitier pushed for an alteration to the script so that he would slap the man back.
“I knew that [by not reacting] I would have been insulting every Black person in the world,” Poitier said in a 2013 CBS interview. This open act of defiance and pride for a Black character in the film was transformative, and is often used to anecdotally describe Poitier’s role as a Black trailblazer in Hollywood.
The height of his career was during the 1960s and 1970s, while the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. One can imagine what it must have been like for America to watch a Black man receive an Academy Award on national television in 1964, just one year after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Despite Poitier’s accomplishments, we still are observing a deeply flawed Hollywood. After Poitier, only a handful of other Black people have won Academy Awards, and they have been few and far between. To honor Poitier’s legacy, Hollywood needs to continue to examine inequality within the opportunities it gives Black actors for recognition. Poitier’s accomplishments in Hollywood will hopefully continue to inspire change for people of color.