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Remembering Sir Sidney Poitier: The first Black Actor to Receive an Oscar

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Sir Sidney Poitier, whose portrayal of determined heroes in films like “To Sir, With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” established him as Hollywood’s first Black matinee idol and helped open the door for Black actors in the film industry, died on January 6th at 94. His death was confirmed by Eugene Torchon-Newry, acting director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas, where Mr. Poitier grew up. No other details were immediately provided.

Mr. Poitier was born in Miami — home to generations of Bahamians — but he spent part of his childhood in the Bahamas. His dual roots helped to cultivate a deep following in both South Florida and the Caribbean country, which renamed the bridge to Paradise Island after the actor about 10 years ago as part of the island’s 40th anniversary of its independence. The Bahamian diaspora remembered the actor Sidney Poitier on Friday as a son of their soil, among the island’s greatest ambassadors.

Mr. Poitier, the son of tomato farmers, spent his childhood on Cat Island in the Bahamas. The struggles of his parents (after Florida imposed an embargo on tomatoes from the Bahamas, his father sold cigars and his mother pounded stones into gravel), along with the values he learned growing up, shaped his worldview and guided his approach to his work.

The heart of his memoir, is a reflection on Mr. Poitier’s career choices alongside changes in racial politics. Mr. Poitier writes, vividly, about his most iconic roles. He recalls clashes with the playwright Lorraine Hansberry during a production of her groundbreaking “A Raisin in the Sun,” arguing that his character’s perspective should guide the play.

His performance in the film “No Way Out,” in 1950, helped break a cycle that had relegated Black actors to stereotypical roles. And by the 1960s, after making history as the first Black actor to receive an Oscar,  for “Lilies of the Field,” he had starred in roles that expanded how Americans saw Black characters onscreen: as doctors, detectives, engineers.His roles tended to reflect the peaceful integrationist goals of the struggle.

Throughout his career, a heavy weight of racial significance bore down on Mr. Poitier and the characters he played. “I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” he once wrote.

Tributes continue to pour in from the likes of Oprah, Denzel Washington, former President Obama, President Biden and many others. 

“For me, the greatest of the ‘Great Trees’ has fallen: Sidney Poitier. My honor to have loved him as a mentor. Friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher,” she captioned a photo of the two together. “The utmost, highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious, eloquent life. I treasured him. I adored him. He had an enormous soul I will forever cherish. Blessings to Joanna and his world of beautiful daughters “ – Oprah

In 2002, Mr. Poitier was given an honorary Oscar for his career’s work in motion picture. (At that same Oscar ceremony, Denzel Washington became the first Black actor since Mr. Poitier to win the best-actor award, for “Training Day.”) He received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1995. And in 2009, President Barack Obama, citing his “relentless devotion to breaking down barriers,” awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mr. Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974.

Mr. Poitier’s memoir “This Life” was followed by a second, “The Measure of a Man,” in 2000. Subtitled “A Spiritual Autobiography,” it included Mr. Poitier’s thoughts on life, love, acting and racial politics. It generated a sequel, “Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter” (2008).

Despite his role in changing American perceptions of race and opening the door to a new generation of Black actors, Mr. Poitier remained modest about his career. “History will pinpoint me as merely a minor element in an ongoing major event, a small if necessary energy,” he wrote. “But I am nonetheless gratified at having been chosen.”

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