Falvey Memorial Library’s Dig Deeper series explores topics of importance in our society and the news. It connects these subjects with resources available through the Library, so our faculty, students, and staff can explore and learn more, potentially sparking new research and scholarship.
Sidney Poitier, the first ever African American actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor (lead), was an iconic figure in both film history and Black history, which is celebrated each year in February.
Sidney Poitier’s story is still one that has been revered as a success-story of hard work and exceptionalism against the constraints of a Hollywood landscape that was by no means welcoming to Black actors. As detailed in Goudsouzian’s biography Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon, after moving to America, Poitier was mocked at his first theater audition in Harlem for his strong Bahamanian accent and difficulty reading. Fueled by this reaction, he reportedly picked up a few newspapers that day and taught himself to read and speak without his accent.
His determination, hard work, and new Americanized self-made persona landed him several successful auditions, and eventually, after securing his first lead role in Blackboard Jungle, Poitier was one of the most notable Black actors working in Hollywood in the 1950s and 60s, a time when Black film-making and acting in Hollywood reached a particular low point.
Poitier received his first Academy Award nomination for his role in 1958’s The Defiant Ones. His historic Academy Award victory came a few years later for his role in Lilies of the Field (1963). By 1967, he proved to have the biggest box office draw in Hollywood, with his films In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and To Sir, With Love.
Nicknamed the “Ebony Saint,” the majority of his roles were double-edged swords, depictions of Black exceptionalism to the extreme, leading to his persona facing criticisms. Namely, Black critics argued that his roles did not represent the social reality of Black people in America, as detailed by Arthur Knight.
Ultimately, with the coinciding rise of Black power politics and the Blaxploitation film cycle in the early 1970s, the pendulum swung the other way, and Black actors began to play action-hero roles rife with vengeful masculinity and overt sexuality.
Some saw Poitier for his individual exceptionalism and self-made success, an image of hope that the American Dream was real and integration was possible. Others saw him in relation to what he was up against, a Black star at the whims of white Hollywood elites, a man tasked with being one of the sole representations of Blackness in Hollywood.
Yet, Poitier’s dramatic talent is something that fans and critics alike largely agree upon. Sidney Poitier was an actor by trade and talent, and he was able to masterfully portray the characters he was given. And, as Knight argues, despite the restrictiveness of his roles, Poitier was even able to subtly rebel in his acting, adding in glimpses of pleasure.
Thus, even a year after his death, Poitier is still revered by many for his work. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, one of Poitier’s famous films, even just got its third iteration, with You People starring, among others, Eddie Murphy and Jonah Hill.
Dig deeper and explore the links below for more on Sidney Poitier.
Find resources on Sidney Poitier at Falvey:
- Poitier’s autobiographies, This Life and The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography
- Goudsouzian’s biography, Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon
- Blackboard Jungle (1955)
- Stars of the Silver Screen, “Sidney Poitier” (2011)
- Arthur Knight’s “Sidney Poitier: It is No Great Joy to Be a Symbol” in New Constellations: Movie Stars of the 1960s
- Poitier Revisited: Reconsidering a Black Icon in the Obama Age
Other resources on Poitier:
Annie Stockmal is a graduate student in the Communication Department and graduate assistant in Falvey Library.