Sidney Poitier is one of America’s greatest actors. The Bahamian-American actor helped break colour barriers in Hollywood and was one of the first actors to land leading roles and attract audiences as an African American. His career includes work on the stage and in front of the camera, as well as directing films and serving as a diplomat.
Sidney Poitier is arguably one of the most iconic actors in the history of American film, but focusing solely on his achievements on screen ignores his other major accomplishments. Poitier is from the Bahamas, but was born in the United States while his parents were visiting the country. His work on and off screen in Hollywood helped redefine African- American culture in the US at a time when civil rights were on the mind of all Americans.
Born in America, Raised in Bahamas
Sidney Poitier was born to Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier of Cat Island in the Bahamas. His parents were farmers in the Bahamas with a large produce farm. The family regularly travelled from the Bahamas to Miami, USA, to sell tomatoes and other produce. When the family visited Miami in February 1927, Evelyn gave birth to Sidney two months early. His parents remained behind in Miami with their newborn son for three months to nurse him to health, before bringing him back to the family farm on Cat Island. Poitier would grow up on Cat Island until he was 10, when he then moved to Nassau, where he would live for the next five years. Poitier is considered a Bahamian-American, but his uncle once told the story of the family’s arrival in the Bahamas. He claims that Reginald’s side of the family came to the Bahamas from Haiti long before. Poitier’s uncle states that the family likely ran away from Haiti as escaped slaves, establishing one of the many maroon communities that cropped up throughout the Bahamas, including Cat Island. Maroon communities were established throughout the Caribbean after African slaves escaped slavery in colonies, forming independent settlements.
Coming to America
At the age of 15, Poitier moved to Miami to live with his brother. As a result of his unexpected birth in Miami in 1927, Poitier had US citizenship by birth. After two years living with his brother, he moved to New York City where he worked in restaurants, learning to read with the help of a fellow waiter. After spending time in the United States Army, he launched his career as an actor with a successful audition with the American Negro Theatre. Early in his acting career, Poitier was rejected by audiences of the American Negro Theater because he was tone deaf and unable to sing effectively in performances. Following months of hard work ridding himself of his Bahamian accent, Poitier’s second run in the American Negro Theater garnered attention from Broadway. His appearance in the leading role in Lysistrata, on Broadway, gathered good reviews and more attention. By 1949, he had his choice of leading roles on Broadway and in Hollywood. His film career was launched with No Way Out, in which he appeared as a doctor treating a white man who was an outright bigot. His success led to more roles in Hollywood, including many roles that were not traditionally offered to African- American actors at the time.
His career in Hollywood and on the stage on Broadway would continue to grow. He became the first male actor of African descent to be nominated for an Academy A ward (The Defiant Ones, 1958), and became the first actor of African descent to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field. Among his other awards, Poitier was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barak Obama in 2009. This is the highest civilian award presented to American citizens.
Life Away from the Spotlight
Poitier made a name for himself in front of the camera and on the stage as an actor, but he also succeeded behind the camera and away from the world of entertainment. He has directed a number of films, including Stir Crazy. The film, featuring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, stood for a long time as the highest grossing film directed by someone of African descent. Following his acting and directing career, he served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Walt Disney Company from 1995 to 2003. In April 1997, Poitier took on a new role as a diplomat for his native Bahamas. The nation’ s Prime Minister appointed Poitier as the Ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan. He is also the nation’s ambassador to UNESCO. To this day, Poitier holds both of those positions. Sidney Poitier is held in high regard in the United States for breaking through many of Hollywood’s colour barriers, gaining attention as a legitimate actor who was capable of landing major roles at a time when African- Americans were blocked from such roles. Poitier redefined the image of African- American actors in American cinema and on the stages of Broadway. The situation did not change overnight, but without Poitier, it would have been years before African- Americans gained respect as legitimate actors capable of succeeding in key roles and attracting audiences.