This Day in the Arts — February 20 in Film History

February 19, 2013

Abgerissene Tage eines KalendersJust a word before we get to today’s snippet of history. I am honored to have been asked to do a guest post in Donna Martin’s blog series Writerly Wisdom today. You may read my post about writers and blogging at Donna L. Martin’s On the Write Track.

Now to This Day in the Arts: On February 20, 1927, actor Sidney Poitier was born. I confess I find it hard to believe that he is eighty-six years old.

I have long admired him as an actor and as an advocate for civil rights. It is a joy to celebrate him today.


Sidney Poitier didn’t have an easy start to life — he was the son of an impoverished tomato farmer in the Bahamas. Life back home didn’t have much to offer, so he headed for the United States in his teens, and found that the streets there were not paved with gold either.

After World War II, he tried acting, and after working very hard to eradicate the Bahamian accent from his voice, he went from one success to another. He was the first African American to win a Best Actor Oscar, in 1964. He was a ground-breaker for all the actors of color who would follow him.

Although he was sometimes criticized for not fighting against the strictures that were placed on his acting because of his race, he had a very delicate line to tread in leading the way from the stereotyped stock characters that African Americans had been restricted to, to fully realized, fully human characters such as we consider standard today.

I first experienced his power as an actor in the role that earned him the 1964 Academy Award — Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field. (I also read my copy of the book of the same name so many times that it fell apart.) Three years later, he starred in the racism-challenging Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? which again was a groundbreaking role. There were many other roles which he made uniquely his own, in movies such as A Patch of Blue (one of my favorites), To Sir With Love, and They Call Me Mister Tibbs! as just a sampling.

Throughout his career, he played characters who commanded respect — not because of their race, but because of their actions, their words, their being.

Aram Goudzouzian has written a book titled Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. The introduction, found on the University of North Carolina Press website, powerfully portrays this man and the way he used his talent to challenge the way things were done.

A biography in the New York Times adds to the picture, and an article from the BBC helps us see how things have changed since he received his Oscar in April 1964.

We all owe a great deal to Sidney Poitier. I wish him well on his 86th birthday and beyond.

10 People reacted on this

  1. Whoa! He’s 86? Yeah, I’m taken aback by that too. But his presence, like Sean Connery, is so iconic I forget that he’s going to age just like everyone else. His was a road filld with adversity and in choosing, he chose to tread an agile path that has opened many doors and helped to soften the blow of certain stereotypes.

    Happy Birthday, Mr. Poitier! And thank you for sharing this today, Beth 🙂

    1. It is hard to remember that the people we make into icons are still human beings — but they are. I so appreciate the way you expressed your thoughts about him. Thanks, Angela!

  2. I have always loved Sidney Poitier. I never made the connection about the roles he plays until I read your blog this morning. I always felt like I was watching “the man” not the actor. And I love his voice and accent. Therefore, I found it interesting that he worked hard to eradicate the Bahamian accent from his voice. I guess the voice and accent that I enjoy is the product of his hard work.

    1. It would be interesting to be able to go back and hear what he sounded like before, wouldn’t it? I, too, love his voice. Thanks, Alayne!

  3. I’d had a crush on him for a while. 🙂 My favorite movie of his was of course Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but I also like that one of him and Tony Curtis as cuffed together jail-breakers…and the name totally eludes me this moment. Ah! Defiant Ones (thank you, internet search engine!). I wish him a happy birthday and many, many more!

  4. I have always had so much respect for his talent. I believe I’ve seen most everything he’s been in. Thank you for providing more detailed information. I found the post very interesting!

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