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Our View: Sidney Poitier

His acting was groundbreaking and his character was inspirational

We lost Sidney Poitier the other day. What a beautiful man he was. What a tremendous loss. His acting roles were groundbreaking and inspirational to behold.

Sidney Poitier

He was the first Black actor to win an Oscar, for his performance in “Lilies of the Field” (1963). Chief film critic for The New York Times A.O. Scott said: “He was more than a pioneer; he was a revolutionary. He didn’t just make it in Hollywood. He remade Hollywood.”

Poitier was an ethical man whose performances opened doors and taught actors how to act, while at the same time teaching us how to act as humans. I came upon him later, in 1967 through “In the Heat of the Night.” I can still feel the visceral power in his delivery of the memorable line in that film: “They call me ... Mr. Tibbs!”

In the same film, he immediately reacted to being slapped by a wealthy southern white man by returning the blow just as forcefully. This was unthinkable and unheard of at the time even in Hollywood. The scene came from Poitier’s feedback to the producer and screenwriter during the film’s development process. Poitier felt that is how any man would react to being slapped. Producers, already nervous about southern theaters banning the film, worried about including the scene. Poitier insisted that the scene be in and had that written into his contract or he would not do the film. The scene was groundbreaking to say the least and is often pointed to as one of the pivotal points in the civil rights era. It is known as “the slap heard round the world.”

Co-star Rod Steiger said Poitier slept with a gun under his pillow during part of the film shoot. Despite criticism from some as the civil rights movement grew more militant, Poitier did indeed do it his way. He was a major player in the movement off-screen as well, raising money and support from white actors particularly for Summer Freedom volunteers and the 1963 March on Washington.

“To Sir with Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” were also released in 1967. These were three important and impactful films all in one year at the height of the movement. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Poitier plays John Prentice, a young Black doctor engaged to a young white woman. They travel to meet her wealthy liberal parents who are forced to confront their own latent racism. His character’s parents attend the dinner as well and are strongly opposed to the marriage. We get to see the unveiling of the minds and perspectives of each character displayed through several one-on-one and group conversations. The memorable scene here is the private confrontation between John and his father where Poitier’s character lovingly says: “Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”

As a teenager in the late ’60s who wanted to be a teacher, Poitier was one of my coming-of-age early manhood heroes. He carried himself with such confidence, dignity, grace and elegance that I attempted to model myself after him. My first teaching/coaching position was in the Bronx, New York. It was a far cry from the East London inner-city school situation portrayed in “To Sir with Love,” as I was blessed with delightful, intellectually curious, privileged students. Nevertheless, Poitier’s “To Sir” role as a teacher made an impact on me and inspired me to want to reach my students as his character had.

I saw Poitier in a small airport years ago in between flights. I desperately wanted to meet him, speak with him and tell him what he had meant to me. However, he was with, what appeared to be, his grandchildren. Out of respect, I chose not to interrupt him and risk invading his privacy. To this day, it is one of the few genuine regrets of my life. I wish I had approached him. Perhaps this is my belated attempt to do so. Sidney, we still need you now more than ever.