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Sidney Poitier Blazed A Trail. What Now Of His Legacy?

Sidney Poiter, wearing sunglasses, looks into the camera while marching,
Sidney Poitier (center) supporting the Poor People's Campaign at Resurrection City, a shantytown set up by protestors in Washington, DC, May 1968.
(Chester Sheard/Getty Images
Hulton Archive)
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A little more than eight years after 42-year-old Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, 37-year-old Sidney Poitier became the first Black performer to win a best actor Oscar.

While public transportation is no longer cleaved by race, the movie business remains unspokenly yet undeniably segregated, despite Poitier’s trailblazing. The actor’s death at the age of 94 is a potent reminder not only of his and his followers’ achievements, but also of the hard work that remains in Hollywood.

Poitier’s Oscar win in 1964 was hardly a fluke. He was one of Hollywood’s most compelling and bankable actors, often playing characters governed by a clear sense of right and wrong in films as varied as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “To Sir, With Love” and “The Defiant Ones.”

While he won his best actor trophy for “Lilies in the Field,” one of Poitier’s most memorable performances was in “In the Heat of the Night,” where he played detective Virgil Tibbs opposite Rod Steiger’s racist Southern sheriff, who calls Poitier’s character the N-word and asks “Virgil” what they call him in Philadelphia.

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Sidney Poitier in a suit holds a package in his lap. His left hand holds his chin.
Sidney Poitier while filming "In the Heat of the Night."
(Keystone/Getty Images
Hulton Archive)

“They call me Mr. Tibbs!” Poitier answers with unmasked fury.

You can read the line as both fiction and truth; Poitier was of course playing a scripted role, but he also was speaking for many people of color marginalized by centuries of white supremacy. “In the Heat of the Night” was released in 1967, just three years after the passage of The Civil Rights Act.

“I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” Poitier wrote.

Poitier, who grew up in the Bahamas, very nearly could never have become an actor. He auditioned for but was not accepted into New York’s American Negro Theater company, and later found a path in by working as an unpaid janitor. When a young company member by the name of Harry Belafonte didn’t show for an audition, Poitier got the part.

As an actor, Poitier was grounded by a physical and moral certainty as arresting as the timbre of his voice; he learned to lose his Bahamian accent by listening to radio announcers. Yet even as a popular performer, he was often typecast, and the range of roles he was offered was narrow. Still, he made the most of every opportunity.

When Denzel Washington won the best actor Oscar for 2001’s “Training Day,” he saluted Poitier, who had won an honorary Academy Award that same evening. “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir,” Washington said.

Yet Washington’s win actually did feel like a fluke.

The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was just around the corner, as was the revelation by the Los Angeles Times that voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were nearly 94% white, with Blacks making up about 2% of the membership. In last year’s Emmys, every acting trophy went to a white nominee, and the four series winners were anchored by white performers or ensembles.

Awards organizations can only honor filmmakers, performers and artists whom studios, networks and streamers hire. And as study after study proves, the town keeps giving the majority of jobs to white men. It’s not just Blacks who have been cast aside; Latinos make up nearly 19% of the U.S. population, but according to a recent report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative they get fewer than 5% of speaking parts in popular movies.

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Poitier once said, “If I’m remembered for having done a few good things, and if my presence here has sparked some good energies, that’s plenty.”

But is plenty enough?

Poitier’s groundbreaking legacy shouldn’t end with his death.

It should begin again.

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn, entertainment reporter and host of our weekly podcast Retake, explores whether the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

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