When it comes to Bold lives lived and lost, 2022 was a tough year. But one loss–of a trailblazer in the entertainment industry–really stung: the legendary Sidney Poitier. A Bahamian-American actor, director, and diplomat, he paved the way for black actors in a time when it was impossible, which put him on Project Bold Life’s list of 2022’s Lives Boldly Lived (and lost).
(Did you miss the last installment of 2022’s Lives Boldly Lived, which featured Sacheen Littlefeather? If so, read it here!)
Poitier was born in Miami, Florida, on February 20, 1927, while his parents crossed the Florida straits to sell tomatoes from their farm in the Bahamas. Being premature made his first few months a fight of life and death, and it took time for him and his parents to return to their farm at Cat Island.
During his childhood, the Bahamas was still under the control of Great Britain, and while he attended school, he learned very little. By 11, the Poitier family moved to the country’s colonial capital, Nassau, to gain better opportunities. It was in Nassau that Poitier experienced living in an industrial civilization and enjoying watching movies. Due to their impoverished lifestyle, 12-year-old Sidney left school to support their family.
At 15, Poitier’s father urged him to pursue his luck in the United States as one of his older brothers settled in Miami. His birth in Miami allowed himUS citizenship, but his circumstances as a black man in 1940s America meant his rights were seemingly non-existent. Growing up in an all-black society in the Bahamas made it difficult for Poitier to adjust to the segregation policies and indignities in the US. The experience led him to leave his job as a dishwasher in Georgia after one summer and to try his luck in New York City.
Robbed of most of his savings, Poitier reached Harlem with only a few dollars. Alone and penniless, the 16-year-old slept on bus stations and rooftops and worked odd jobs until he could rent a room. Unable to afford warm clothing for the harsh New York winter, he lied about his age to join the Army but soon feigned insanity to get a medical discharge after not fitting in.
“I didn’t run into racism until we moved to Nassau when I was ten and a half, but it was vastly different from the kind of horrendous oppression that black people in Miami were under when I moved there at 15. I found Florida an antihuman place.” – Sidney Poitier
The Road to Fame
Without any idea for the future after returning to New York, Poitier auditioned for Harlem’s American Negro Theater on impulse. Due to his Caribbean accent and poor reading skills, the group rejected him, and he took it as a challenge and resolved to become an actor. For half a year, Poitier struggled to improve his reading and listened to the radio for hours to modify his accent. After returning to the theater, he became a janitor and exchanged his wage for classes. Soon, he was allowed to perform as a substitute, and while his performance was mediocre, his acting charmed his audience. The experience paved the way for Poitier to enter the small world of African-American professional actors.
Poitier made his film acting debut in 1950 as the male lead of “No Way Out”, and his performance became a revelation and sensation to the American audience. While his success dealt with theater bans and censorship, it also helped start the black Bahamian movement for independence from Britain. His following film, “Cry, the Beloved Country”, also began a political awakening in South Africa.
Although his achievement was pivotal for all black people, money was still tight, and he had to work day jobs to get by. Dissatisfied, he joined an acting workshop that improved his acting while finding kindred spirits in an integrated community. In 1955, his performance in “Blackboard Jungle” made him an international sensation. His career peaked in the 1950s, and in 1958 he received his first Academy Award nomination for “The Defiant Ones”.
With his influence, opportunities for black people in the film industry continue to improve by the late 50s. At the height of his career, Poitier recognized his responsibility as the industry’s most prominent black figure and started using his fame and resources to support social injustice movements in the US, the Bahamas, and South Africa.
In the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field”, Poitier bagged his first Academy Award for Best Actor, becoming the first African-American actor to receive the prestigious acting award.
“I had to satisfy the action fans, the romantic fans, the intellectual fans. It was a terrific burden.”— Sidney Poitier
Pursuits for Change
Despite his fame, Poitier’s success was a target of criticism. Frustrated, the actor returned to the Bahamas and became a leading supporter of the independence movement. After regaining its sovereignty in 1973, Queen Elizabeth II conferred knighthood on Poitier in 1974.
He spent the 1970s as a film director and opted for comedic roles instead of serious ones. From the 1980s to the 1990s, Poitier expanded his career to television and book writing. Keeping his dual citizenship, he became the Bahamas’ Ambassador to Japan in 1997 while serving as the nation’s Ambassador to UNESCO.
In 2001, he received his second Oscar, a Special Award for Lifetime Achievement, while in 2009 and 2010, he accepted the Lincoln medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“If I’m remembered for having done a few good things, and if my presence here has sparked some good energies, that’s plenty.” – Sidney Poitier
The acting legend died at his home in Los Angeles, California, on January 7, 2022, at 94. Several decades after his debut, his hard work opened opportunities for a multitude aspiring actors and entertainers in the black community–certainly a life Boldly lived!
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