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Sidney Poitier, first black man to win Oscar, passed away at 94.



Sidney Poitier, Hollywood’s first major Black movie star who won mainstream popularity with a series of groundbreaking roles in the 1950s and 1960s, has died aged 94. His death was announced on Friday by the minister of foreign affairs of the Bahamas, Fred Mitchell.

The Bahamas deputy prime minister, Chester Cooper, said he was “conflicted with great sadness and a sense of celebration when I learned of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier”.

He added: “Sadness that he would no longer be here to tell him how much he means to us, but celebration that he did so much to show the world that those from the humblest beginnings can change the world and that we gave him his flowers while he was with us. We have lost an icon. A hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure.”

The Hollywood star was known for films including Guess Who’s Coming to DinnerIn the Heat of the Night and Lilies of the Field.

Born to Bahamian parents while they were visiting Miami to sell tomatoes in 1927, Poitier grew up in the Bahamas – then a British colony – before returning to the US aged 15 and working at a series of low-paid jobs before briefly serving in the army during the second world war following which he scored his first film role in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle. He overcame poverty, ignorance, and prejudice to become one of the first Black performers acknowledged and accepted by mainstream audiences in big parts.

Poitier broke racial barriers in Hollywood. The celebrated actor became the first Black star nominated for an Academy Award with 1958’s “The Defiant Ones” which was a historic achievement in itself for a black man in a lead category at the time and, six years later, he became the first to win the best actor Oscar for his performance in “Lilies of the Field” in which he played a handyman who helps German nuns to build a chapel in the desert.

Sidney Poitier
Poitier with Anne Bancroft after winning the best actor Oscar in 1964

The actor chose his characters with care, rejecting the conventional Hollywood notion that Black performers could only appear in humiliating roles such as shoe shine boys, train conductors, and maids. Many of his best-known films dealt with racial tensions at a time when Americans were coping with the societal upheavals brought about by the civil rights movement. 

At a time of racial tension in America in the 1950s and 1960s, Poitier balanced success with a sense of duty to choose projects that tackled bigotry and stereotypes, including his 1967 classics “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night.”

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he played a Black , who is a doctor convincing his White fiancée’s suspicious parents. He played the character of Virgil Tibbs, a Black police officer from Philadelphia confronting racism during a murder investigation in Mississippi in the film In the Heat of the Night. He also played a teacher in a tough London school that year in To Sir, With Love.

His other classic films included A Patch of Blue, The Blackboard Jungle and A Raisin in the Sun, which he also performed on Broadway.

Poitier with Rod Steiger in a still from In the Heat of the Night. 

As soon as the news of Poitier’s demise surfaced, messages honoring and mourning the legendary actor started flooding social media.

US broadcaster and journalist Oprah Winfrey was among the first to pay tribute to the well-respected actor. “For me, the greatest of the “Great Trees” has fallen: Sidney Poitier. My honor to have loved him as a mentor. Friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher. The utmost, highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious, eloquent life. I treasured him. I adored him. He had an enormous soul I will forever cherish. Blessings to Joanna and his world of beautiful daughters ” she posted on Instagram.

Denzel Washington, the second Black actor to win the best actor Oscar, said in a statement: “It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend. He was a gentle man and opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years. God bless him and his family.”

Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier (r) with Denzel Washingtonafter being awarded an honorary Oscar statuette awarded at the 74th Academy Awards, Los Angeles in 2002.

Former US President Barack Obama said Poitier “epitomised dignity and grace” and had “singular talent”. He added that the actor revealed “the power of movies to bring us closer together” and “opened doors for a generation of actors”.

President Barack Obama presents the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sidney Poitier.

Speaking on a live Facebook stream on Friday, The Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Philip Davis said: “Our whole Bahamas grieves. But even as we mourn, we celebrate the life of a great Bahamian.” He added: “His strength of character, his willingness to stand up and be counted and the way he plotted and navigated his life’s journey. “The boy who moved from the tomato farm to become a waiter in the United States, a young man who not only taught himself to read and write, but who made the expression of words and thoughts and feelings central to his career.”

Actor Viola Davis added: “No words can describe how your work radically shifted my life. The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and sheer electricity you brought to your roles showed us that we, as Black folks, mattered!!!”

Actor Morgan Freeman described Poitier as “my inspiration, my guiding light, my friend.”

TV personality and actor Whoopi Goldberg tweeted: “If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high: To Sir … with Love. “Sir Sidney Poitier R.I.P. He showed us how to reach for the stars.”

Sidney Poitier with wife Joanna Shimkus

Poitier married twice, the first time to Juanita Hardy from 1960 to 1965. After a nine-year affair with actor and singer Diahann Carol, Poitier married Joanna Shimkus in 1976. They stayed together for the remainder of his life. Poitier is survived by six children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Poitier was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2002 for his “extraordinary performances” on the silver screen and his “dignity, style and intelligence” off of it.

The actor was also knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and served as the Bahamas’ ambassador to Japan and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. From 1994 to 2003, he was also a member of the Walt Disney Company’s board of directors.

He was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom the country’s highest civilian honor by Barack Obama in 2009.

Also Read: Kim Mi Soo death: Disney+ ‘Snowdrop’ actress dies suddenly at 29.

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