Remembering Sidney Poitier’s Huge Impact on American Culture


This commentary on the life and legacy of Sidney Poitier was first published in the BAFTA Awards Book 2006, as part of the organization’s award of excellence to the pioneering star, who died on January 6 at the age 94.

Is Sidney Poitier the most important actor in American history?

One could quickly argue this issue in an affirmative manner simply with news of clips showing heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Birmingham March on Washington, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks; Olympians Tommy Smith and John Carlos with their fists in the air in Mexico City in 1968; the rabid segregationists Bull Connor, Lester Maddox and George Wallace; sit-ins and accompanying fire hoses and attacking police dogs; the separate public spaces, the high-profile Ku Klux Klan marches and their discreet lynchings.

For any American film buff who lived through the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, the importance of Sidney Poitier’s career cannot be overstated. Poitier is the guy who proved the stupidity of racism film after film – from the early 1950s film “No Way Out” to his role in a popular 1970s comedy series – in theaters and drive-in drives across. America.

Of course, Brando redefined the profession, along with Dean and Clift. Chaplin expanded artistic boundaries and the Duke personified John Ford’s mythical West, but Sidney Poitier redefined America and personified the truth about black America’s quest for equality.

Her gravity and grandeur, her humanity and humility, her relentless struggle for dignity have all had a huge impact on America, forever changing American society and its film industry – and for the better.

His influence was felt most strongly when he took the stage at the Oscars ceremony in 1964. Recognized for his work in Ralph Nelson’s “Lillies of the Field”, he accepted the first actor Oscar ever to be awarded. noir.

If we were to watch this news again from that time, you would see President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a few months after the Oscars, then we would see the exhumed bodies of murdered civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney a few weeks later.

The times were like that.

The personality of Poitier again marked American culture when Poitier, not smiling this time, gritted his teeth as fictional detective Virgil Tibbs, facing a very Bull Connor-ish Southern cop played by Rod Steiger. He spelled out the sacred rage of an entire race with the line, “They call me Sir Tibbs.

Spot the timeline: It was in Oscar-winning best film “In the Heat of the Night,” which recovered its five statuettes in April 1968, just days after King’s assassination.

Coupé in Poitier, which today remains totally committed to making the world a better place. He’s stepped out of the movie frame and has both feet in the real world.

Honors continue to flow on the way to Poitier, from chivalry to the Oscar of honor. His civic duties also continue, notably as Ambassador of the Bahamas and UNESCO.

Remarkably, given the pressure on Poitier to be “the Jackie Robinson of the cinema”, he did not bow under that impossible cloak. He did not become bilious and strident like many of his contemporaries, who, given the brutal circumstances of this time, can be forgiven for not matching Poitier’s inner strength. Where so many people grew bitter, Poitier became wise and generous. As an accomplished director and producer, he has provided vehicles for a new generation of black actors and filmmakers to prove their creativity and business acumen.

I asked Poitier recently if it was a sign of significant progress that it took less than four years for a black actor, Jamie Foxx, to win the Oscar for Best Actor after it took almost 40 to another, Denzel Washington, to obtain this honor. Poitier chuckled warmly and said, “Well, I guess that proves there aren’t two ways about it.”

Could all this have happened without Poitier’s brilliant and revolutionary career? No guesswork here: there aren’t two ways about it either.


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