On Sunday, Chiwetel Ejiofor has the opportunity to make history as the first Black British actor to be named Best Actor at the Academy Awards. He is the first Black British actor to be nominated for the honor at all. Though Ejiofor faces formidable competition, he is considered by many to be a favorite to win the award for his stellar performance as free Black man-turned-slave Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave. Should he win, he will owe a debt of gratitude to an American-born Bahamian actor who paved the way for his success more than fifty years ago. Chiwetel’s embodiment of Northrup is definitely a picture of dignity in the face of adversity. That dignity, too, is a part of the legacy of the great Sidney Poitier, the man to whom Ejiofor will be indebted. Whether he wins or loses, the debt should stand, especially when one considers the historical weight of Poitier’s contribution.
Sidney Poitier was the first Black person to win the Oscar for Best Actor. The honor was huge, but he was not the first to win an Academy Award. That distinction belongs to Hattie McDaniel, who took home the 1939 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy, a domestic worker in Gone With the Wind. McDaniel, however, drew sharp criticism for the stereotypical role, especially in later years. It is Sidney Poitier, though, who is largely credited with ushering in a new level dignity and self respect for people of color in the motion picture industry, and with being the first to be recognized and rewarded at the highest levels for upholding such a standard.
Born to Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier in Miami, Florida on February 20, 1927, Poitier became an American by accident. His parents owned a farm on Cat Island in the Bahamas and had traveled to Miami to sell tomatoes and other produce. Poitier was not due to be born for another two months, but fate had other plans and he was born prematurely during their American business trip. Because of his premature birth, he was initially not expected to survive, and his parents remained in Miami for three months to nurse him to health. The family returned home and Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, which was then a British colony. Because of his birth in the United States, however, Poitier automatically gained U.S. citizenship. Had this not been the case, Poitier, not Ejiofor, may have been the first Black British actor to be nominated for and possibly win an Oscar.
At age 15, Poitier was sent by his family back to Miami, to live with his brother. At 17, he relocated to New York City. He held several jobs as a dishwasher. For several weeks, a Jewish waiter sat with him nightly and helped him learn to read the newspaper. Once he became proficient at reading, he joined the United States Army. After leaving the military, he resumed work as a dishwasher until he auditioned for and earned a spot with the American Negro Theatre.
Upon joining the American Negro Theatre, Poitier experienced rejection by audiences due to his tone deafness, which rendered him unable to sing, an implied requisite ability of most Black actors during that time. He spent the next six months honing his theatrical abilities and working to try to discard his heavy Bahamian accent. He tried the theater again, and earned a leading role in Lysistrata on Broadway. By the end of 1949, Poitier had received an offer to act in the film No Way Out, in which he portrayed a doctor treating a White bigot, played by Richard Widmark. His breakout role, however, was as a high school student who was part of an unruly class in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.
Poitier was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor his performance in The Defiant Ones in 1958, making him the first male Black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award, almost two decades after McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress nomination and win. Tony Curtis was also nominated for Best Actor for The Defiant Ones, the exact same film. Neither actor won. Poitier returned to Broadway, acting in the first production of A Raisin in the Sun in pre-Diddy 1959, and later starred in the film version in 1961. In 1963, Poitier would be nominated for – and win – the Academy Award for Best Actor for his film portrayal of Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field.
(Watch the video of Poitier accepting his Oscar from Ann Bancroft. Many were offended that Poitier appeared to give her a kiss on the cheek.)
One might think Poitier would have been ecstatic over winning such a historical honor. While he was undoubtedly honored, it was reported that he was also concerned that the industry gave him the award for being a token who took on roles as an appeasing, soft-spoken, non-threatening Negro. He received harsh criticism from the increasingly vocal Black community for portraying “over-idealized” characters who were not at liberty to display personality faults or have any sexuality, such as his character in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. He was actually criticized by his own community for being too good, too morally upright, too intelligent, and not promiscuous enough. Poitier was painfully aware of the criticism, and the pattern in his roles, yet he saw himself as having a much larger mandate. As the only – yes, only – major black actor in the American film industry at the time, he viewed it as his responsibility to set good examples with his characters in order to defy previous stereotypes applied to Blacks before him in the entertainment industry. In 1966, he turned down the lead in an NBC production of Shakespeare’s Othello for that very reason, though Othello was considered by some to be a prize role at the time, largely due to Paul Robeson playing the role in three different productions between 1930 and 1959.
Poitier was the single most successful draw at the box office in 1967, the commercial pinnacle of his career, with three films, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, To Sir, with Love, and In the Heat of the Night. His In The Heat of the Night character, detective Virgil Tibbs, was the subject of two sequels They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971).
Poitier experienced success behind the camera as well. He directed several films, including Buck and the Preacher, a western in which he starred alongside Harry Belafonte, and the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy blockbuster Stir Crazy, which for years held the record as the highest grossing film directed by a person of African descent. He directed popular movies such as A Piece of the Action, Uptown Saturday Night, and Let’s Do it Again, in which he starred alongside Bill Cosby. Belafonte also starred in Uptown Saturday Night.
Despite a relatively low public profile in recent years, Poitier has been a consistent contributor to society. Since 1997, he has served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan. He is also the Ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). On August 12, 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States of America’s highest non-military honor, by President Barack Obama. In 1974, he was dubbed with the distinction of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
In 2002, Poitier was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Honorary Award “in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.” That list of accomplishments will receive another entry if Chiwetel Ejiofor wins Best Actor at this year’s Oscars. The thirty-eight year drought for Black men winning Best Actor ended with Denzel Washington winning for Training Day in 2001, and has since been followed by Jamie Foxx (Ray, 2004) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, 2006). Still, a win by Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave would represent a return to a day when a Black actor was recognized for more than just the color of his skin, his swagger, his sexuality, his talent or his attitude, but by the content of his character’s character. If that happens, the British actor would do well to look back much further than Denzel, Jamie or Forest, and give a hearty salute to Sir Sidney Poitier.
This article uses reference material that was released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidney_Poitier; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Defiant_Ones; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Actor; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_black_Academy_Award_winners_and_nominees; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Othello; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UNESCO