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Poitier: an island boy exemplar

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Rare representation: Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier brought interracial marriage to the big screen in the 1967 movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

The recent death of Sidney Poitier has been described by commentators as the end of a golden era in film, as he was considered among a list of that period’s stellar actors. The global cultural impact of this native of the Bahamas is quite extraordinary given whence he came.

This, right from his birth in 1927, when he arrived three months premature while his farming parents were delivering a consignment of tomatoes to Miami. That postnatal period proved to be touch-and-go for the baby, so they remained in Florida for three months.

With his family struggling on Bahamas’ “Cat Island”, Sidney grew up in most challenging circumstances. From the age of 4, he was most often left alone to explore the pristine but primitive environs, with no roads, plumbing or electricity.

In his autobiography The Measure of a Man, Poitier describes how, since there was no school available, he benefited from adventures that allowed him to confront his fears — producing a resilience that served him well in overcoming the odds. By the time Sidney was 10, the farming economy collapsed and the family moved to Nassau, exposing him to modernity.

That brought his first opportunity to attend school, but Sidney noted the disadvantages of his family background, being among those “at the bottom of the pecking order“ in the capital.

In the circumstances, when he was 14 and “getting into mischief”, his parents sent Sidney off to live with his oldest brother in Miami. However, the teen’s sense of independence made it difficult for him to adjust to Florida’s segregationist policies. The brother had his own family of five children by that time, so Sidney began considering options.

Never afraid of work, Sidney found that he could survive on dishwashing, so he began to travel. At 16, he ended up in New York and survived on dishwashing jobs and sleeping on high-rise roofs. When he found what “cold” meant, he joined the army at 17 but through a “performance” received a quick discharge.

By happenstance, Sidney ended up auditioning for a role with the American Negro Theatre. He was initially rejected because of his limited reading skills and diction owing to his few years of schooling. This aha moment led him to use his dishwashing breaks to practise reading newspapers and an elderly Jewish waiter helped him daily. Within several weeks, Sidney “got it”.

On another tryout with the American Negro Theatre, he was designated as an understudy for new-found friend Harry Belafonte. On the opening night, Harry could not make it and Sidney timidly took on the role. Although “not great”, Sidney was good enough that an agent offered him another role. Some seedlings budding.

Taking one step forward and two back, he struggled forward. He considered himself lucky to have friends such as Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. They were mentored by Paul Robeson — a “giant” whose militancy led to his friends being blacklisted. Poitier refused to sign any Loyalty Oath. which was a repressive tool of the time, and therefore lost out. He sustained his family, running a restaurant 18 hours per day.

There were enough producers of character who resisted the status quo and Sidney eventually was able to make breakthroughs, such as the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle. He had an important breakthrough when he co-starred with Tony Curtis in the Defiant Ones, in which both actors received Oscar nominations in 1958.

In 1959, Sidney received a Tony Award for the ground-breaking play A Raisin in The Sun, a Black production — co-staring Ruby Dee — which The New York Times claimed transformed American Theatre. From that platform, Sidney began reaping the fruit of long labour; highlights included being the first Black actor to win an Oscar for the movie Lilies of the Fields in 1963, the same year of the March on Washington.

Sidney maintained his values. Earlier that year, he had joined Belafonte in a “caper” to deliver thousands of dollars needed to post bail for protesters near Birmingham. The two were uncovered after their successful delivery and chased by Klansmen in pick-up trucks — you couldn’t write that script!

Commanding respect: the character of Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackeray in To Sir, With Love reminds us of the difference an inspirational teacher can make

The year 1967 proved pivotal for Poitier with three major films. The crowd-pleasing To Sir With Love, the police drama In the Heat of the Night and the taboo-challenging Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was banned in 17 states at the time. (The same states that today are championing Voter Suppression legislation.)

Sidney continued as a globally respected actor and broke through in trying his hand behind the camera. His best directing came with Stir Crazy in 1980.

Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda

This “island boy“ was honoured both by the British and the US governments for his global cultural impact. When you drill down on this exemplar of character and whence he came, his life story, who could have written a better script?

Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda

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Published February 04, 2022 at 8:10 am (Updated February 04, 2022 at 8:10 am)

Poitier: an island boy exemplar

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