“It is a long journey to this moment,” mused Sidney Poitier upon collecting the 36th Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964, his watery eyes glistening in spite of the grayscale footage. Needless to say, the momentousness of this event, however hard we try, is largely lost to those of us born in the decades that followed it. But for Poitier, and the countless thousands if not millions who walked in the shadow of oppression, this was everything. A game-changer, the actions of this one man, quite literally, rewrote the script for black actors and actresses.
A native to the Bahamas, Poitier began life a world away from ‘the big screen.’ He was a foreigner by nationality, had little formal schooling, could not read and even ran into difficulties in his first audition with the ‘American Negro Theater’ company in Harlem, owing to his ‘incomprehensible’ accent. Peculiar especially, when we juxtapose this with the unparalleled stage presence and eloquence we marvel at later on in his career.
Poitier’s work was truly groundbreaking. Movies like A Patch of Blue (1965), To Sir, with Love (1967) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) constantly sought to redefine the role of the black man in American society. In The Heat of the Night (1967), Poitier famously demanded a scene to be rewritten. The screenwriters originally called for his character to be slapped and not to retaliate. Poitier refused, insisting that he should slap the man back with equal force. This audacious move illustrates the film pioneer’s deep concern social justice, pushing the envelope at every available opportunity. And we, the world over, are indebted to him for this very reason.