Before Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx or Will Smith there was Sidney Poitier. A Hollywood legend has been extinguished this Friday with the death, at the age of 94, of the first great black star of the film industry. A pioneer who helped transform the portrayal of African Americans in movies and normalized that people of color could be the protagonists of stories, not just supporting characters. The death of the first Oscar-winning black man, in 1964 for Lilies of the Valley, has been announced by the Bahamian Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell. Although Poitier was originally from Miami, he also had Banahameño nationality. Chester Cooper, the deputy prime minister of the Caribbean country, called the protagonist of In the heat of the night an “icon, a hero, a mentor, a fighter, and a national treasure.”
Poitier was the first black actor in many things. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in 1959 for Fugitives, but he did not get the coveted statuette until 1964 thanks to his performance in Lilies of the valley. Now accustomed to protest speeches in this type of ceremony, his was concise. He gave thanks for the award, named a few people, including the film’s director and screenwriter, smiled excitedly, and left.
But that moment was historic for African Americans. An inspiration for host Oprah Winfrey, then 10 years old. “In 1964 I was a little girl sitting on the floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for Best Actor. […]. The most elegant man I have ever remembered took the stage. His tie was white, his skin was black, and they were celebrating. I have never seen a black man being celebrated like this, ”said the journalist at the 2018 Golden Globes.
The characters that Poitier incarnated were not in accordance with the white public, with simple mentalities and being helpful and obedient. Far from that, he came to the movies to change the perception of other races in an industry dominated by whites. “The type of black that appeared on the screen was always negative, buffoons, clowns, butlers, true outcasts. This was the context when I arrived 20 years ago and chose not to be part of the stereotypes … I want when people leave the cinema to feel that the lives of human beings are important. This is my only philosophy about the films I make, ”he explained during an interview in 1967.
Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were almost killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, so when Poitier starred in 1966 In the heat of the night He refused to film in natural settings and the American South was recreated in Illinois. Because it is to that white supremacist south that a black policeman is sent to investigate a racist crime in this film, one of the most famous in Poitier. Since they did not find a cotton plantation in the north, the team filmed for a few days in Tennessee: Poitier slept there with a gun under his pillow.
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