Actor Sidney Poitier dies; opened the doors of cinema for African Americans

Sidney Poitier, whose portrayal of determined and worthy heroes in films such as “To Sir With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” established him as Hollywood’s first African-American idol and helped open the world. door of the film industry, has passed away at the age of 94.

His death was confirmed by Eugene Torchon-Newry, Acting Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas, where Mr. Poitier grew up. No other details were immediately provided.

Mr. Poitier, whose Academy Award for the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field” made him the first African-American artist to win in the best actor category, rose to prominence as the civil rights movement began to thrive. in the U.S. Their roles tended to reflect the peaceful integrationist goals of the struggle. Although he often simmered with suppressed anger, his characters responded to injustice with calm resolve. They met hatred with reason and forgiveness, sending a reassuring message to white audiences and exposing Mr. Poitier to attack like an Uncle Tom when the civil rights movement took a more militant turn in the late 1960s.

“It’s a choice, a clear choice,” Poitier said of his film roles in a 1967 interview. the blacks that would be more dimensional. But condemn me if I do that at this stage of the game. ”

At the time, Poitier was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors and a major box office sweepstakes, ranking fifth among male actors in Box Office magazine’s poll of movie owners and critics, behind Richard Burton. , Paul Newman, Lee Marvin. and John Wayne. However, racial apprehension would not allow Hollywood to cast him as a romantic lead, despite his good looks.

“Thinking of the American black man in romantic socio-sexual circumstances is difficult, you know,” he told an interviewer. “And the reasons why they are legion and too many to analyze.”

Poitier was often found in limited and holy roles that nonetheless represented a major advance on the degrading roles offered by Hollywood in the past. In “No Way Out” (1950), his first major movie role, he played a doctor being hunted by a racist patient, and in “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1952), based on Alan Paton’s novel about the racism in South Africa. , appeared as a young priest. His character in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), a troubled student at a tough New York City public school, sees the light of day and finally side with Glenn Ford, the teacher who tries to communicate with him.

In “The Defiant Ones” (1958), a racial fable that enshrined him as a star and earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor, he was a runaway prisoner, handcuffed to a fellow convict (and virulent racist) played by Tony Curtis. The best actor award came in 1964 for his performance in the low-budget film “Lilies of the Field,” as a traveling handyman helping a group of German nuns build a church in the southwestern desert.

In 1967, Poitier appeared in three of Hollywood’s highest-grossing films, raising him to the peak of his popularity. “In the Heat of Night” placed him in front of Rod Steiger, as an indolent and bigoted sheriff, with whom Virgil Tibbs, the Philadelphia detective played by Poitier, must work on a murder investigation in Mississippi. (In an indelible line, the detective insists on the sheriff’s respect when he declares: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”) In “To Sir, With Love” he was a concerned teacher in a tough London high school, and in ” Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ”played a doctor whose career tests the liberal principles of his future in-laws, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Throughout his career, a great weight of racial importance gripped Poitier and the characters he played. “I felt like I was representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” he once wrote.

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Actor Sidney Poitier dies; opened the doors of cinema for African Americans

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