He stood alone, like a giant atop a mountain. No one could, should, or would even try to reach him.
If the word “legend” applies to anyone in the world of film, his name would top the list.
Not only was he the first black man to win Oscar’s Best Actor Award (1965), but he was a trail blazer in a racist social environment, paving the way for other black actors, to rise above the stereotypical “negro” roles offered to them.
Hollywood listened to Sidney Poitier. Black actors started to rise as stars in major films. However, no one reached his stature. As Denzel Washington admitted on receiving his Best Actor Award 38 years after Poitier, “I’ve always been chasing you, but I’ll never catch you… no one ever will.”
Tall, dark, and handsome was not enough. He was also graceful, sensitive, dignified, stylish, genteel, and polished. While groping for an adjective to describe him, we could only find one: perfect.
He was simply too good to be true.
More than an accomplished black actor, he was prince-like in his poise, refinement, and splendour.
Would those real royal princes behave in similar fashion?
His stunning success as a major lasting black film star was not because of his looks or talent, but because of his impeccable believability.
Superior in every way, it is hard to imagine he was born to poor Bahamian tomato farmers — surely there must be a drop of royal blood in him, passed down from an African king, forced into slavery by British colonialist.
Filmmakers and film-goers alike mourned the passing of Poitier on 6 January at the age of 94.
Never watched Poitier on the screen? What a loss. Waste no more time. Just pick any of his 40 films and even if the film is not great, he is. If you are lucky, you can view 10 of his best such as A Patch of Blue, Porgy and Bess, For Love of Ivy, Paris Blues, and The Defiant Ones among others —but if you are extra lucky you may land on one of his best.
He made history as Homer Smith, an ex-GI who helps some German nuns build a chapel. The nuns thought he was sent by God. Perhaps he was. His performance in Lilies of the Field, with no supporting actors, carried the film to tremendous success, and thus history was made. For the first time Hollywood presented the best male actor award to a black actor.
They Call Me Mr. Tibbs was a cry of fury, heard around the world. Despite the abolishment of slavery in the US, the southern states continued to demean the black population. Poitier was an activist and a great supporter of the equal rights movement. He had his chance to express his contempt in another hit movie, In the Heat of the Night as a senior crime detective who is sent to a small southern town to help investigate a murder. He stood face to face against the accomplished Rod Steiger, who portrayed an incompetent policeman. Referring to him as “boy”, as southerners do, Poitier roared his famous line, which still rings in the ears of the whole world.
You may have noticed that despite the effort to recognise actors of colour, Hollywood was yet unable to portray inter-racial romance. This frustrated Poitier, but the studios were firm — until Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner came along. This is 1967 light-hearted romance between a black, handsome, distinguished doctor working for the World Health Organisation and a white college girl, daughter to liberal parents, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.
A passionate kiss finally happened between a black man and a white girl. Happy to celebrate their engagement, the liberal parents were put to the utmost test.
Love naturally wins the day.
Besides, who would not wish his daughter to marry such a refined, educated and handsome, loving suitor?
Among his many gems is a British drama To Sir, With Love, based on the novel by the same name, by E R Braithwaite. Poitier portrays Mark Thackeray, a charismatic high school teacher assigned to a school in London at the height of the youthful “mod” movement where discipline has completely broken down and the delinquents rule.
With his innovative teaching methods, his interest in the personal lives of his students, his help in solving their problems, with extreme sincerity and tenderness, Sir easily earns their respect and their love. The film became an international hit; one of the high grossing films of the year, and the title song, “To Sir with Love” topped the charts. The singer Lulu was also featured in the movie.
The song was dedicated to their endeared teacher as a final adieu. With tears flowing from the once defiant students, it broke our hearts.
The film became a classic and Poitier became the toast of London.
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1974.
We have highlighted some of the works of this impeccable figure of virtue and dignity, imposing respect for his race and for all humankind. This is “the measure of a man” (title of a book he authored).
To say he was brilliant is an understatement. He was the flawless Sir Sidney.
Thank you for sharing your gifts with us. We have shed a few tears watching you. Allow us to shed a few more as we say thank you Sir Sidney and good-bye.
“He doth bestride the narrow world/ Like a Colossus; and we petty men/ Walk under his legs”
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.