This Day in the Arts — February 20 in Film History
February 19, 2013
Just 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.
We all owe a great deal to Sidney Poitier. I wish him well on his 86th birthday and beyond.