Hollywood confined African-Americans to playing the roles of servants or the village idiot, but Sidney Poitier broke these stereotypes in the 1950s to 1970s, thus participating in the slow change of mindset in American society.
The actor, who died yesterday at the age of 94, was the first black man to win the Oscar for best actor for Lilies of the Field.
“The journey to get here was long,” he said excitedly after receiving the golden statuette in 1964.
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Thanks to their roles, the public was able to imagine that blacks could aspire to be, for example, a doctor (The door opens, 1950), an engineer, a teacher (To the teacher with affection, 1967), or even a policeman ( In the heat of the night, 1967).
But at 37, when the actor received his Oscar, he was the only star of color in Hollywood.
“The film industry was not yet ready to elevate more than one minority personality to star status. At that moment, (…) I subscribed to the hopes of an entire people. I had no control over the content of the films (…), but I could turn down a role, which I did many times ”, he wrote in his autobiography This Life.
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In 2002, 40 years later, Sidney Poitier He received an honorary Oscar for “his extraordinary performances, his dignity, his style and his intelligence.”
“I accept this award on behalf of all the African-American actors and actresses who have come before me (…) and on whose shoulders I have been able to stand,” replied the actor, thanking “the visionary decisions of a handful of producers and directors.”
That same night, Denzel Washington became the second black man to receive the Oscar for best actor: “I will never reach your height and I will always put my steps above yours,” said the colleague.
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When Poitier was born on February 20, 1927 in Miami, his father bought him a coffin. The baby arrived two months early and weighed barely a kilo. He had come from the Bahamas to get a better price for his tomatoes, not to welcome a new son. His wife rejected fatalism and consulted with a psychic who predicted a bright future for Sidney. The parents stayed three more months in Miami.
Thanks to this premature birth, Poitier obtained American citizenship. At 15, his parents can send him to Miami with his brother to earn a living.
To escape the racist laws of Florida, he goes to New York, where he survives. In 1946 on Broadway, the director Joseph Mankiewicz noticed its qualities. For his first film (The Door Opens, 1950), he plays a doctor who attends the bedside of two white racists. The film, censored in the south, launched its film career.
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Three years after his Oscar, he is the hero of three major blockbusters (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Angels with Clenched Fists, and In the Heat of the Night). He becomes even more popular than white stars like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.
In Hollywood, however, little has changed for blacks. Critics of the film accuse him of his role as the ideal son-in-law, which does not reflect the discrimination suffered by African Americans. Thus he inherited nicknames such as “Uncle Tom”, “lackey” or “million dollar shoe shine.”
At the beginning of the 1970s a new era for film noir opens with blaxploitation and its most radical films. “My career as a Hollywood star was coming to an end,” said the actor, who later turned to directing.
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In 1997, he played the black African leader Nelson Mandela and later the then first black justice of the Supreme Court of U.S, Thurgood Marshall.
Married for 15 years (1950-1965) with the dancer Juanita Hardy, with whom he had four daughters, Poitier married again in 1976 with the Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus, who gave birth to two other daughters.
In 2000, she confided to Oprah Winfrey that she had stayed true to her father’s principles. Despite his great poverty, “he remained dignified, although in his entire life he never made as much money as I could spend in a week.”
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