Tuesday, February 7

Sidney Poitier, Hollywood Legend, Dies at 94 | Culture


Before Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx or Will Smith there was Sidney Poitier. A Hollywood legend has been extinguished this Friday with the death, at the age of 94, of the first great black star of the film industry. A pioneer who helped transform the portrayal of African Americans in movies and normalized that blacks could be the protagonists of stories, not just supporting characters. The death of the first Oscar-winning black man, in 1964 by Lilies of the valley, has been announced by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Bahamas, Fred Mitchell, who has not explained the causes of death. Although Poitier was originally from Miami, he also had Bahamian nationality. Chester Cooper, deputy prime minister of the Caribbean country, called the protagonist of In ethe heat of the night an “icon, a hero, a mentor, a fighter, and a national treasure.”

Poitier, the son of a Bahamian farmer who grew tomatoes, was a pioneer in many things. He began as a member of the American Negro Theater company, which produced 19 plays in Harlem until its closure in 1949. He had his first leading role in 1950, in a role that was prophetic for his career. That year he rolled A ray of light (No way Out), where he played a black doctor who must treat two white racists in the midst of a climate of tension that can unleash a racial revolt. The film by Joseph Mankiewicz, director of Naked eva, gave him the opportunity to play with a juicy character who had to make several moral decisions marked by a feeling of justice, something that broke the mold of the stereotypical roles of that time.

He was nominated for an Oscar for best actor in 1959 for Fugitives, but he did not get the coveted statuette until 1964 thanks to his performance in Lilies of the valley. Before him there was only Hattie McDaniel, who won the award in 1939 for the category of best supporting actress for her role as a maid in Gone With the Wind. Now accustomed to protest speeches in this type of ceremony, his was concise. He thanked for the award and named the director and writer of the film, smiled excitedly and left.

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This was a historic moment that inspired many African Americans. Among them the presenter Oprah Winfrey, who was 10 years old. “In 1964 I was a little girl sitting on the floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for Best Actor. […]. The most elegant man I have ever remembered took the stage. His tie was white, his skin was black, and they were clapping for him. I have never seen a black man being applauded like this, “said the journalist at the 2018 Golden Globes.

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The award, however, also caused controversy among the most militant activists of the civil rights movement, who considered him an “Uncle Tom”, someone who sold himself to the system despite all the years in which Hollywood portrayed blacks as a simple community, ignorant and sunk in poverty. Part of this controversy had spawned years earlier, in the mid-1950s, when Poitier acceded to Samuel Goldwyn’s whims and played Porgy in George Gershwin’s film adaptation of the opera, considered an unfortunate caricature of blacks. Poitier had to accept the role to achieve the role of Fugitives with Tony Curtis, a film that was always among his favorites.

The interpreter changed many of the perceptions that marked a white-dominated industry. “The type of black that appeared on the screen was always negative, buffoons, clowns, butlers, true outcasts. This was the context when I arrived 20 years ago and chose not to be part of the stereotypes … I want when people leave the cinema to feel that the lives of human beings are important. This is my only philosophy about the films I make, ”he explained during an interview in 1967.

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Sidney Poitier signs autographs at the Berlin International Film Festival on June 26, 1964.
Sidney Poitier signs autographs at the Berlin International Film Festival on June 26, 1964.Edwin Reichert (AP)

In 1980, with almost 40 years of experience behind him, Poitier believed that he had helped to break down those stereotypes. In his biography, published that year, he said that Hollywood “was not yet ready to star more than one person from a minority.” But demographic changes put pressure on the industry and brought a desire to see “movies that better express the lives and needs of the black community.” “Finally, Hollywood has gotten the message,” he wrote in This life. Only someone like him, twice named the nation’s highest grossing star and one of the highest paid alongside Richard Burton, John Wayne and Paul Newman, could say that. In Guess who’s coming tonight shared credits with two legends, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, in a film that shocked many because it was one of the first to touch on the subject of interracial relationships.

Behind the camera

Poitier has among his more than 50 titles Seed of evil (Blackboard Jungle) Y Classroom rebellion (To sir with love). In both films, he conveyed to the audience the experiences and difficulties that the classrooms of the United States lived after the era of segregation. In the first, the actor played a student and in the second, a teacher. “Poitier did not make films, he made milestones charged with artistic excellence and American progress. It not only entertained, but it enlightened and modified positions and broadened hearts to unite us, ”said Barack Obama in 2009 when he presented him with the Medal of Freedom, one of the highest recognitions of that Administration for civilians.

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Sidney Poitier and singer Harry Belafonte came close to being assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. This was the reason why it refused to shoot in 1966 In the heat of the night in natural settings in the southern US, and production moved to Illinois. In that film, one of the most memorable of his filmography, he played Virgil Tibbs, a black detective who must investigate a racist crime in the south, in the stronghold of white supremacists. Since they did not find a cotton plantation in the north, the team filmed for a few days in Tennessee: Poitier slept there with a gun under his pillow.

In the late 1970s, Poitier took a hiatus from his acting career for others. He then concentrated on building a small career as a film director with castings done almost exclusively by African-American actors. Many of them starring himself. Behind the camera he showed a particular interest in comedy and directed, in addition to Belafonte, popular comedians of the eighties such as Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, who have been implicated in scandalous sexual abuse prosecutions. In 1988 he returned to the fray with an action movie. His last major production for the big screen was made in 1997, a failed version of Jackal.


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