Born on February 20, 1927 was not only one of the most talented actors of the mid-20th century, but also one of the coolest human beings in general: Sidney Poitier.
Sidney was born prematurely in Miami while his Bahamian parents were visiting Florida. Though being born on American soil gave him U.S. citizenship, Sidney grew up on Cat Island (where his parents ran a farm) and later Nassau before moving back to Miami as a teenager to live with his brother.
At the age of 17, Sidney moved to New York City, where he worked in restaurants while hoping for that one breakout role in a stage production to come along. Sidney had grown up in poverty without much formal education, and it is reported that a co-worker also taught him to read during this time by helping him study the newspaper.
As a black actor in the 1940s, Sidney struggled to find acting gigs. Furthering the struggle, he was often rejected for the simple fact that he couldn’t sing – something that many of the roles available to him would have required – or the fact that he had an accent.
Sidney finally caught a break on Broadway, which led to the inevitable choice between stage and screen at the end of the decade, and Darryl F. Zanuck came knocking to offer him a leading part in No Way Out (1950). Sidney took that role, and so began his legendary film career.
No Way Out may not have been a huge breakout role for Sidney, but it did give him the opportunity to take interesting roles leading up to his breakout in Blackboard Jungle (1955). In No Way Out he had played a doctor who was treating a hateful, racist man portrayed by Richard Widmark, and this strong role set the stage for the type of stereotype-breaking characters he would play throughout the next couple of decades.
The following are some of my favorite performances by Sidney Poitier:
No Way Out (1950) – I love this film as a whole, because it does everything that I wish films like Storm Warning (1951) would have done: tackling the issue with a very direct approach. But even more than the film itself, I love Poitier’s performance here. It came as a complete surprise to me when, after watching this film for the first time, I discovered that it was his first credited role. It goes to show what a natural talent he has for acting.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961) – Like No Way Out, this film tackles its issues head-on. From racism to poverty to religion, A Raisin in the Sun effectively prods the viewer’s mind on a variety of topics. Poitier’s character of Walter is instrumental to some of the film’s thought-provoking quality. Stuck in a job he hates and feeling trapped by his life, Walter is all at once an eye-opening and a relatable man. Alongside the fantastic Ruby Dee, who plays his wife, Poitier gives the type of brilliant performance that I have come to expect from him.
The Bedford Incident (1965) – Teamed up once again with Richard Widmark of No Way Out (though with very different dynamics between their characters this time around), Sidney portrays a journalist who tags along on a routine Navy patrol only to be thrown into the frenzied situation of the discovery of a Soviet submarine in the area. Sidney does a great job here of drawing the viewer into his character and making the film more of a human drama than a straight war film.
To Sir, with Love (1967) – I reviewed this film last year and wrote of Poitier’s performance: “Poitier gives a very strong but definitely understated performance in this role. There could be no other sufficient choice as the lead for this film – he carries it flawlessly.” I stand by these statements; Poitier gives an amazing performance, subtle enough to be believable by lively enough to make his character’s personality come across on screen.
Sidney’s career is also historically significant because he became the first black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Here’s a snippet of an article that was published following Poitier’s win:
“The acting profession’s top award has gone to a black actor for the first time.
Sidney Poitier won the best actor Oscar for his role in Lilies of the Field.
In the film, released last year, he played construction worker Homer Smith whom a group of nuns believe was sent to them by God to build their church.
The only other black person to win an Oscar was the best supporting actress award given to Hattie McDaniel in 1939 for her role in Gone with the Wind.
Alongside ‘Rat Pack’ actor Sammy Davis Jnr and, earlier, Paul Robeson, Poitier is one of only a handful of black men to gain recognition in Hollywood for roles not involving singing or dancing.
It was the second time he had been in the running for an Oscar after losing out in 1959 when he was nominated for his part in The Defiant Ones.
‘It has been a long journey to this moment,’ the actor said after he was presented with the prized statuette by actress Ann Bancroft.”
What are your favorite Sidney Poitier films? Leave a comment and share them!