Celebrating Academy Award Winner and Cultural Icon Sidney Poitier
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Actor, Academy Award winner, writer and director Sidney Poitier is celebrating is 91st birthday today. Poitier is a cultural icon of protest and humanity in Hollywood as his career defined the modern history of African American representation in American films, through his interpretation of powerful characters. His career remains revolutionary.
Poitier always considered that cinema could expand individuals' view of reality. The artist started his career at the theatre, and his first role of Harry Belafonte in Days of our Youth led to a small role in the Greek comedy Lysistrata, a big hit for Poitier.
Sidney Poitier only made his cinema debut in 1950 in No Way Out (1950), in which he plays Dr. Luther Brooks, an man assigned to treat two racist robbery suspects. When one of them dies, race tensions are dangerously aroused. The movie was censored at the time as it was deemed too explosive.
During the 50s, the actor played in some of the greatest and most controversial movies of the decade. Controversial because they chose to address issues of racial equality; for instance, Cry, The Beloved Country (1951) which relates the issue of apartheid in South Africa, and Blackboard Jungle (1955), a social commentary film about an inter-ethnic inner-city school in which Poitier played a rebellious and musically talented student.
He also acted in the adaptation of Nedrick Young’s story, The Defiant Ones (1958) alongside Tony Curtis, a film about prisoners of different ethnicities who must co-operate to survive in their fight for freedom. Poitier was nominated for an Academy Award following this film and won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Following this, Poitier returned to the theatre in 1959 for A Raisin in The Sun, the first play to have been produced on Broadway written by a black woman, as well as the first with a black director. The play was a reflection of African American family life at the time and was very popular.
It is only in 1963 that Poitier finally gained popular recognition in the film industry, as he became the first African American man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, following his interpretation of Homer Smith in James Poe’s adaptation Lillies in the Field (1963). In this film Smith if an itinerant worker who encounters East German nuns, who believe Smith was sent by God to build a new chapel.
Later, Poitier continues to captivate Hollywood with In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). In the former, Poitier takes the role of Virgil Tibbs, a police detective who is investigating a murder in a racially hostile southern town. The movie won 5 Academy Awards and Poitier’s quote "They call me Mister Tibbs!" was ranked 16th on the American Film Institute’s '100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes'.
The latter film was a romantic comedy in which Poitier portrays Dr. John Wayde Prentice Jr., a man engaged to a white girl who must meet her parents. At the time of the film's release, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 US states, and this film was the first to portray interracial marriage in a positive light and to have a happy ending.
Over the subsequent 20 years, Poitier directed a series of films that included the renowned and classic comedy Stir Crazy (1980), starring Gene Wilder and Richer Pryor. He returned to his acting career in 1988 with Shoot to Kill, an adventure crime-thriller film, in which in plays Warren Stantin. The movie was a box office success and still rates incredibly at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
In half a century Sidney Poitier directed and acted in more than 55 movies, as well as making an appearance on the small screen. He used his art to raise awareness of racial issues, made a great contribution to American cinema, and has offered the world some of the greatest movies of all time. He is truly an icon that changed the industry and society.