February 2, 2022
‘Pay me the respect due’. Sidney Poitier as a symbol of perseverance
Sidney Poitier (L) at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, alongside actors Harry Belafonte (M) and Charlton Heston (R)
Sidney Poitier was born on the 20th February 1927 in Miami, Florida.
A year later his parents crossed the Florida straits in a sailboat to sell tomatoes on Cat Island in the Bahamas.
For the first 10 years of his life, young Sidney helped maintain the family farm on a small island where there was no electricity, automobiles, running water or any other ‘modern inventions’.
When he was 11 years old, the Poiters moved again, to Nassau this time, and the modern world was first revealed to the future star. In 1943, once he was 16 years old, he returned to the United States which was fully engaged in World War 2. He enlisted and spent a brief period in a medical unit.
The Sidney Poitier – an actor who grew to huge fame – began soon after, when Sidney decided to join the American Negro Theatre in New York. His application was initially refused because of his accent. This was when he showed what kind of a person he was: he practised his enunciation by embodying the voices he heard on the radio. Six months later, when he reapplied, he was accepted.
He recalled: “In my first experience in front of a camera, my first experiences on stage, was a totally dimensional awareness of life… All of what I feel about life, I had to find a way in my work to be faithful to it, respectful of it. I can’t play a scene that I don’t find texture of humanity in the material.”
This mindset is what made him stand out and ultimately rise to stardom. He rejected roles and parts that were based on racial stereotypes and which did not reflect humanity. He stood by his values and searched for deeper meanings in his roles.
In 1963, Sidney Poitier became the first Black man to win an Academy Award – or Oscar – for best actor for his portrayal of Homer in the movie Lilies of the Field. Moreover, he was the first Black man to star as the main performer and have the same salary as a white man. His skills, values and charisma made him become a star.
His achievements, voice and example had a strong impact on the film industry and broader society during the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s in the United States when progress was slowly achieved in attempts to eradicate discrimination, racism and racial segregation. However, his status as a star did not mean being accepted and respected wherever he went: he was followed by the Ku Klux Klan; during interviews, he was asked questions related to his race; it was hard for him to find a house in Los Angeles because of the colour of his skin.
In 1967, during a press conference, he said: “ I am an artist, man, American, contemporary. I am an awful lot of things, so I wish you would pay me the respect due”.
Sidney Poitier was a man who continued persevering and working, no matter how many threats or prejudice he faced. He played an important role in the progress of acceptance and diversity, not only in the United States but all over the world. He was an inspiration to many. He was the one who opened doors to the Black community and minorities in the filming industry.
It is not surprising, that when he passed away on January 6, aged 94, there was hardly an outlet which did not mention him on its first page. Former US President Barack Obama, who awarded Poiter the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, wrote: “Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomised dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together. He also opened doors for a generation of actors.”