I have previously written about the 1967 British film ‘To Sir With Love’ and the main star of that, Sidney Poitier, is the feature of today’s blog.
If you have a quick think of the films he has been in over the years, you soon realise he was a powerful force for change in the turbulent civil rights years of the late 1950 and ‘60s. He played a very important role in highlighting the injustices of the time and he was a very powerful voice for change. And when you learn of his start in life, it is all the more remarkable as to what he achieved.
He was born three months premature in Miami in 1927, when his Bahamian parents, poverty stricken farmers Evelyn and Reginald, were there to sell produce from their land on Cat Island. As a result of being born on US soil, he automatically received American citizenship. However young Sidney and his folks returned to live in the Bahamas, then a British colony. His surname is believed to come from an English slave owner who had an estate on the island.
By the age of 10 he had moved to Nassau and it was there that he had his first cinema experience. He then returned to Miami aged 15 to live with his brother Cyril. Soon restless and suffering from racial abuse however, he moved to New York.
There he had a succession of menial jobs, including dishwasher in a restaurant, where a waiter taught him to read. At night, he slept at times in the toilet of the local bus depot.
Homeless, he enlisted underage in to the US Army in 1943, where once again he struggled to fit in. Released from service, he joined the American Negro Theatre Company. At first, audiences didn’t respond favourably to his strong Bahamian accent, so he worked diligently to soften that by listening to radio broadcasts and he worked hard at upping a his acting skills.
He was then noticed in the theatre production of ‘Lysistrata’, which led by 1949 to an appearance in the film ‘No Way Out.’ Next came a trip to South Africa for the film ‘Cry, The Beloved Country’ (1951) and then he achieved national recognition in the role of Gregory in ‘Blackboard Jungle’ (1955)
Other notable work includes Otto Preminger’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ in 1958 with Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis junior and as a jazz saxophonist in ‘Paris Blues’ alongside Paul Newman in 1961.
He then became the first black male actor to pick up an Oscar nomination for the film ‘The Defiant Ones’ co-starring with Tony Curtis (1958) and then he went on to win one for Best Actor for ‘Lillies of the Field’ (1963)
His treatment in Miami when he first arrived from the Bahamas, the trip to South Africa, then under apartheid rule, and the general all encompassing civil rights struggle in the US at the time, found Poitier at the forefront for social change. He was on the legendary March on Washington in 1963 with Dr. Martin Luther King. He also marched to Montgomery and Memphis with the same fervour.
King later said of Sidney ‘He’s a man who never lost his concern for the least of God’s children.’
The year of 1967 was a remarkable on for him at the box office, in roles that challenged and highlighted the obstacles that many African Americans faced at that time. He had three record-breaking films in that one remarkable year.
First up, ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ which dealt with inter-racial marriage, with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey as his parents in law to be, then the aforementioned ‘To Sir with Love’ as the teacher Mark Thackeray working in a deprived East End, and finally as black detective Virgil Tibbs investigating a murder in the deep South, in ‘In the Heat of the Night.’
‘To Sir’ broke all box office records with the film doing remarkably well. Columbia Pictures researched as to discover why? The answer that came back was simple. Sidney Poitier.
‘I suited their need.’ He said ‘I was clearly intelligent. I was a pretty good actor. I believed in brotherhood, in a free society. I hated racism, segregation. And I was a symbol against those things.’
He would go on to revise the role of Virgil Tibbs in 1970 in the sequel ‘They Call Me Mr Tibbs’
In 1974, he was awarded the KBE by Queen Elizabeth, an honour that awards him the title of ‘Sir’, but it is one that he rarely uses.
He chose to take on very few acting roles in the 80s, though he turned his hand to directing, with ‘Stir Crazy’ in 1980, which starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
From 1997, he became the Bahamian ambassador to Japan and he held the post for 10 years.
On August 12, 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour, by President Barack Obama and in 2016; he was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship for outstanding lifetime achievement in film.
Still with us at now aged 92 the time of me writing this, whatever way you look at it, that is some life.
The Mumper of SE5