A life in pictures: Sidney Poitier

Anna Walker 

In a legendary career spanning 60 years, Sir Sidney Poitier made an irreversible impact on the cinematic landscape. Now proclaiming the titles of actor, director, author and diplomat, we look back on the life of this remarkable man. 

The boy from the Bahamas 

Sidney Poitier was born to Bahamian farmers who worked the land on Cat Island on 20 February 1927. His parents would regularly travel to Miami to sell their wares, which consisted mainly of tomatoes. Baby Sidney was born somewhat unexpectedly, two months premature, while his parents were on one such visit to Miami.

He was not expected to survive, but his parents ignored the doctor's warnings and remained in Miami for three months while they nurtured him back to health.

According to Aram Goudsouzian’s Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon, the family forbearers originally hailed from Haiti. Runaway slaves from Haiti established new communities throughout the Bahamas, including Sidney’s home, Cat Island.

When he turned 15, Sidney was sent to Miami to live with his brother. At the age of 17 he moved to New York alone. He worked as a dishwasher and slept in a bus shelter until he found his feet. A Jewish waiter would sit with him every night after closing until he had taught him to read a newspaper.


Treading the boards

 After a stint with the US army as an officer during the Korean war, Poitier successfully auditioned for the American Negro Theatre after seeing an advert in the newspaper.

Sadly, he wasn’t a hit with audiences. At that time, African-American actors were expected to sing, but Poitier was tone deaf. He wouldn’t be deterred.

Poitier would spend the next six months working on his acting and ridding himself of his Bahamian accent by carefully impersonating news readers.

His hard work paid off. After some successful roles on Broadway, he found himself torn between leading stage roles and a part in Darryl F Zanuck’s film No Way Out.

Luckily for us, he chose film and after his captivating performance as a black doctor treating a caucasian bigot, the doors of Hollywood began to open.


Blackboard Jungle

Sidney Poitier’s breakout role was, without a doubt, his performance as in Blackboard Jungle.

The film told the story of a new teacher at a diverse inner-city school, who finds himself pitted against the troubling behaviour of a group of misunderstood rebel students, led by Poitier's Gregory Miller.

The movie was a huge success and nominated for four Oscars. The New York Times earmarked Poitier’s performance as, “exceedingly sharp and alert.” 


The Oscar buzz begins

Just three years after his breakout role in Blackboard Jungle, Poitier became the first black actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in The Defiant Ones.

He had originally been drafted for a leading role opposite Marlon Brando, but contractual obligations prevented Poitier from taking the part.

Director Stanley Kramer was so desperate to land him for the film that he delayed production, losing Brando as a lead but gaining Tony Curtis. Curtis insisted that he and Poitier both be named above the film title on posters, making a first for Poitier’s career.

The reviews were his best yet and Variety called the performance “virtually flawless”.


Making history

In 1963, Poitier was awarded an Oscar for his breathtaking lead performance in Lilies of the Field, the story of an itinerant worker cajoled by a group of nuns into building them a new chapel. He was the first actor of African descent to win the award for Best Actor.

Speaking to Oprah Winfrey about the moment, he explained that one joy he took from the ceremony was that his mother “lived long enough to see me win… and that was tremendous.”

Despite making history, Poitier did not cope well with the attention that came with his Oscar win.

His satisfaction at this landmark win was blighted by his concern that he had won as Hollywood’s token; that his win was an easy way out for the Academy criticised for its lack of diversity. Poitier's name had become a crux for Hollywood to hide behind, and tell themselves that they were already doing enough.

The actor was troubled, because now the Academy had gifted him with an Oscar, it seemed impossible that he would now be allowed to ask for anything more.

Constantly pressed to answer questions about the civil rights movement, he pushed back at the reporters, “Why don’t you ask me some human questions? Why is it everything you ask refers to the Negroness of my life and not to my acting?"


Facing criticism

From now on, Poitier was met with frequent criticism for allowing himself to be typecast. More and more frequently he was cast as air-brushed African American characters who had no clear sexuality, and often no clear faults.

Contemporary black film critic Donald Bogle said that Poitier’s characters, “spoke proper English, dressed conservatively and were non–funky, almost sexless and sterile… The perfect dream for white liberals anxious to have a coloured man in for lunch or dinner.” 

Poitier was conflicted on the issue. While he wanted to perform in more varied roles he also wanted to ensure he was challenging the old Hollywood stereotypes for characters of African heritage. It was with this in mind, for example, that he decided to turn down an NBC production of Shakespeare’s Othello.

Other African Americans dubbed him a “Mister Tom” or “millionaire shoeshine boy”, comments he said hurt him, but that he understood. 

Poitier looked back on this time when interviewed in his seventies. “It’s been an enormous responsibility. And I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. I had to. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.”

And pave the way for others he did. Samuel L Jackson recalled a time when he first moved to Hollywood in the 1990s. He met Poitier at a party and was astonished when the legendary actor invited him to play golf with him. Sir Sidney would always make time for upcoming black actors, and help them on their way. 


Behind the camera

Sidney Poitier always had ambition that extended beyond performance. He took several turns as director during his career, most successfully with the film Stir Crazy, which was the third biggest box office success of 1980, behind 9–5 and The Empire Strikes Back.

In other stranger remits of his long career, in 1964 the actor recorded an album with composer Fred Katz entitled Poitier Meets Plato. True to its title, it consisted entirely of Poitier reciting lines from Plato’s writing over classical music.

In April 1997 he was appointed the role of Bahamian ambassador to Japan, a position he never took lightly. Poitier served as ambassador until 2007, the last five years of which he also spent as the ambassador to UNESCO. 

Between 1995 and 2003, he also served as a member of Disney’s board of directors. He published a science fiction novel called Montaro Caine in 2013. 


A complicated family man

Sidney Poitier 
 With actress Diahann Carrol in Paris Blues. Image via Rebloggy

Sidney Poitier’s first marriage, to model and dancer Juanita Hardy, lasted for 15 years between 1950 and 1965. They had four daughters together.

The relationship was a complicated one, made more so by Poitier’s on–off affair with actress Diahann Carroll. She left her own husband twice under the illusion that Poitier would leave his wife for her. He never did.

In 1976 he married his second wife, Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus, and had two more daughters. The couple remains wed. 

It seems on all accounts Poitier was a better father than he was husband. Speaking about her dad to CNN, Sherry Poitier described how “we would ask certain questions, you know? Where did the moon come from or why do we have stars? And he would literally answer every one of those questions, and we would be in awe. You know, when I was younger, I really thought he was God.”

Poitier’s children also confessed to the Hollywood Reporter that they would “put barrettes in his hair and then we'd make him call room service. So room service would come and he'd have to open the door with pink barrettes and lipstick on." 


Never losing sight of his roots

With Oprah in 2000
During his interview with close friend Oprah Winfrey in 2000. Image via Oprah

In his 2000 interview with Oprah, Sidney recalled a powerful memory of his youth.

“I know how soul-destroying rejection is. I walked into a hotel once, and there was a famous emcee standing there. He was speaking with some friends, and I stood aside and admired him. At a moment when I thought I wouldn't be disturbing him, I walked up and said, 'Excuse me, may I please have your autograph?' He didn't say anything.

He just looked at me with an annoyed look, like I was wasting his time. I was frozen. Finally, he reached out in a disparaging way and took my paper and pen, scribbled something and passed it back to me. I felt awful, awful, awful…

Having to carry that moment inside me produced a certain response, and as a result, I am never too rushed to give someone an autograph. I will stop. And if I'm running to catch a plane, I will say to the person, 'Please jog with me.' I don't want to be the agent of passing that feeling to anybody.”


2016 BAFTA tribute

In February 2016, Sir Sidney Poitier was honoured with the BAFTA fellowship in recognition of his outstanding contribution to film. 

Amanda Berry OBE, Chief Executive of BAFTA, said: “Sidney is a luminary of film whose outstanding talent in front of the camera, and important work in other fields, has made him one of the most important figures of his generation. His determination to pursue his dreams is an inspirational story for young people starting out in the industry today."

The BAFTA ceremony aired a 12-minute tribute to Sir Sidney, which included tributes from Oprah Winfrey, Noel Clarke and Jamie Foxx.

Though ill health prevented him from collecting the award in person, he thanked the BAFTAs and said: "To the wonderful courageous filmmakers of the world, I thank you for being part of bringing me to this moment and to my family, my life force, I am nothing without you, and to all of you, thank you for your warm embrace and this extraordinary moment, and memory, I shall cherish always."

In a year where the Academy Awards are being boycotted for a second year straight of nominee whitewashing, there is no more important time to remember the progress the film industry made thanks to Sidney Poitier. And to reflect on how much work we still have to do.