Sidney Poitier, HW icon and first African American man to win Academy Award for Best Actor, passes away at 94

The legendary Sidney Poitier has passed away at the age of 94. Poitier, who was born in Miami and raised in the Bahamas, was the first African American man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Sidney Poitier, HW icon and first African American man to win Academy Award for Best Actor, passes away at 94
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Murtaza Ali Khan

The legendary Sidney Poitier has passed away at the age of 94. His death was announced by the minister of foreign affairs of the Bahamas, Fred Mitchell. Poitier, who was born in Miami and raised in the Bahamas, was the first African American man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. He is widely regarded as one of the earliest African American icons and role models in cinema. The Hollywood legend is best known for his unforgettable performances in films like ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ ‘Lilies of the Field,’ ‘To Sir With Love,’ ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ and ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ among others. In his tribute to the legendary actor, the former US President Barrack Obama tweeted: “Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together. He also opened doors for a generation of actors.”

Few sequences in cinema come close to matching the power of the scene in Norman Jewison 1967 masterpiece ‘In the Heat of the Night’ wherein Virgil Tibbs (a black homicide inspector from Philadelphia essayed by the legendary Sidney Poitier) slaps a wealthy, white, and racist plantation owner named Eric Endicott in his home in the Deep South state of Mississippi. Firstly, let’s try and understand the scene’s setting and the odds that are at stake. Late one night in Sparta, Mississippi, the police discover the body of a wealthy industrialist lying in the street. The same night they find a black man at the railway station. He is not only well dressed but also has an unusually high amount of money in his wallet for a black man working in a small town. The officer arrests him and the police chief Gillespie accuses him of murder and robbery but to his great surprise learns that Tibbs is a top homicide inspector from Philadelphia.

Tibbs wants to catch the next train, but his boss suggests he stay in Sparta to help with the murder investigation. Gillespie, like many of the town’s white residents, is racist, but he and Tibbs reluctantly agree to work together on the case. As part of the investigation, Tibbs pays Eric Endicott a visit. Unable to withstand the humiliation of being interrogated by a black man, he slaps Tibbs in a fit of rage. When Poitier's character slaps him back, he is almost into tears. He whines, "There was a time I could have had you shot." It is at this moment that Poitier's eyes do all the talking as a speechless Gillespie looks on. It’s difficult to think of a more powerful anti-racist sequence in the history of cinema. The character of Tibbs became so popular with the audiences that two more films viz. They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971) were made with Poitier reprising his role. Interestingly, the title of the former was derived from Poitier’s line of dialogue from ‘In the Heat of the Night.


Before Poitier, the African-American actors had to be content with playing supporting characters in major studio films. And when those films were screened in the Deep South states they were simply cut out. But Poitier changed the rules of the game. He got his first lead film role in the 1955 film ‘Blackboard Jungle’ that paved the way for ‘The Defiant Ones, for which he got an Oscar nomination for Best Actor alongside his co-star Tony Curtis. Six years later in 1964, he created history by winning the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in ‘Lilies of the Field,’ edging out other nominees that included Paul Newman, Albert Finney, and Richard Harris. When Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar for The Training Day in 2002 (becoming the second African American to do so), he famously said, ““I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.” Washington is just one of many African American actors who have taken inspiration from Poitier to pursue their passion.

Poitier who survived by six children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren last appeared at the Oscars in 2014 to present the Academy Award for Best Director alongside Angelina Jolie. Other than his exploits as an actor, Poitier also directed films like ‘A Warm December,’ ‘Let’s Do It Again,’ ‘Stir Crazy,’ and Hanky Panky,’ among others. The legendary actor also served as the ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan from 1997 to 2007. Poitier was granted a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. He was bestowed with an Academy Honorary Award, in recognition of his “remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being” in 2002. A few years later, in 2009, Poitier was awarded the United States of America's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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