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actor, activist and pioneer: Code Switch: NPR

September 15, 1980: Sidney Poitier, American actor and director.

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September 15, 1980: Sidney Poitier, American actor and director.

Standard Evening / Getty Images

Tributes have multiplied since the death of Sidney Poitier last week at the age of 94. And they should have. He was, as many have noted, an unprecedented actor, committed activist and beloved member of the family. He was also, frankly, an idol – literally tall and dark and handsome.

Poitier became a movie star in the 1950s – a time when most black men in movies and on television had little choice in how they were portrayed. Some were stupid (see Amos’ n Andy – the TV show, not radio) or dim (Stepin Fetchit) or cast to be friendly for whites. (Louis Armstrong was a musical genius and a purebred man, but in the ’60s and’ 70s his Cheshire cat smile was an embarrassment to many my age; it seemed obsequious to young people newly enamored with black nationalism.) Sidney was none of these.

Even as a little girl, I could see why our black mothers passed out. He was supple, graceful as a panther, with a smile that was sometimes deprived, sometimes completely, of a blinding glow. I remember my mom’s Porgy and Bess movie cast album; even as a character forced to move on his knees, Sidney projected strength (but not with his singing voice; he was deaf, so he was nicknamed by the great baritone Robert McFerrin, father of another musician who we urged Do not worry Be Happy…)

If he was a runaway convict (The provocateurs), a wrestler trying to move his family to a better neighborhood (A raisin in the sun) or a traveling handyman building a “form” for an authoritarian German nun in the middle of the desert (Field lilies), he was still standing, still Sidney. Even when it could have cost him his career. Besides taking action, he put his money where his mouth was and supported the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and later the anti-apartheid movement. At his own risk. At its own expense. Of course, our mothers had to flock to the movies to support him.

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Bahamian-American actor and civil rights activist Sidney Poitier supporting the campaign for the poor in Resurrection City in Washington, DC, May 1968.

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Bahamian-American actor and civil rights activist Sidney Poitier supporting the campaign for the poor in Resurrection City in Washington, DC, May 1968.

Chester Sheard / Getty Images

Especially in movies like Parisian blues, For the love of ivy and A hot December, where he falls in love with women who look like them. Many of them were less enthusiastic about the idea Guess who’s coming to dinner, in part because Poitier’s character, a Nobel Prize-nominated doctor, seemed to have teamed up with a white woman, yes, but a woman who seemed pretty ignorant of the rise of the battle they were going to have as that interracial couple. (Remember, the movie debuted the same year interracial marriage became legal in all 50 states.)

When he became the first black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor for Les Lys des champs, Poitier stepped onto the podium in a white tie and tailcoat, sailing through a sea of ​​supporters and applause. thunderous. He agreed with a brief, slightly thoughtless speech that was full of humility and pleasure. Almost 40 years later, in 2002, he accepted another Oscar, honorary, and thanked the “brave visionaries” who tried his luck earlier in his career: “I have benefited from their efforts, the industry has benefited. from their efforts, America benefited from their efforts, ”he told spectators.

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Sidney Poitier leaves the stage with presenter Denzel Washington after receiving an Honorary Oscar at the 74th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood on March 24, 2002.

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Sidney Poitier leaves the stage with presenter Denzel Washington after receiving an Honorary Oscar at the 74th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood on March 24, 2002.

Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images

That night, the audience shone with stars, including one of his mentees, Denzel Washington, who presented him with the award. The couple were especially fitting since that night Washington became the second black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his lead role in the crime thriller. Training day. It was the same evening that Halle Berry became the first black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress in Monster ball. Three black Oscar winners in one night! When he accepted his award, Denzel Washington looked up at the lodge where Sidney Poitier was sitting with his family and greeted him. It was a moment.

At that point, many blacks of all ages passed out, those two accomplished handsome black men who had done so much to expand America’s narrow take on black manhood in movies. But as my mother pointed out to me that night, “Sidney was the first. Quite true. The others, Billy Dee! Denzel! Will be! Idris! —Were able to follow because there is has been a Sidney. By insisting on being true to himself, he had changed the cinematic landscape to what was possible. And for that, we thank him.

Remon Buul

Chairman of the board of directors responsible for organizing and developing the general policy of the website and the electronic newspaper, he is interested in public affairs and in monitoring the latest international developments.

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