Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier, who created history and gave hope to the Black community in cinema, by becoming the first Black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, has died on Friday night. He was 94.
According to The New York Times, the actor’s death was announced on Friday by the ministry of foreign affairs of the Bahamas, Fred Mitchell. However, the cause of death was not mentioned.
Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, to Bahamian farmer parents who would travel to Miami, US, to sell tomatoes. Born unexpectedly in Miami, Poitier acquired a US citizenship, naturally.
Known for his ground-breaking roles, which represented his race, he earned his first Oscar nomination in 1958 for his work in The Defiant Ones, which itself was considered a huge feat for a Black man, just to be considered for an award in the lead role, at the time. Keeping up his contributions to the Black community, Poitier won the Academy Award for his film, Lilies Of the Field in 1963. He became the first Black person to be accoladed with the award, under the category of ‘best actor’. In the film, he played the role of a handyman, who helps a group of East German nuns, build a chapel in the Arizona desert.
Subsequently, in 1967, when racism was rampant in the US, he starred in three American films, with strong characters. They included, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where Poitier played a widowed Black man engaged to a white woman, In the Heat of the Night, in which he essayed the role of a cop, facing racism firsthand, while getting involved in a murder investigation, and an immigrant teacher in a strict London school, in the film To Sir, With Love.
The official Twitter handle of the Academy Awards referred to Poitier as, “barrier-breaking and an enduring inspiration who advanced US racial dialogue through his art”.
During his lifetime, Poitier earned several nominations for Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Primetime Emmy’s, BAFTAs, Laurel Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG). The late actor also served as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan, from 1997 to 2007. He was also awarded the highest US civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama, in 2009.
Sharing a photo of himself along with the actor and his wife Michelle Obama, the former US president said “Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace” through his “groundbreaking roles and singular talent”. Obama added, “He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans.”
American talk show host, actor, and author Oprah Winfrey, shared an emotional note that read, “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.”
Actor, producer Viola Davis condoled his death by saying how “no words can describe how your (Poitier) work radically shifted my (Viola) life”. She further emphasised on how the late actor brought “dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and sheer electricity” in his roles, which showed others how the Black community mattered.
US President Joe Biden tweeted, “The son of tomato farmers in the Bahamas, Sidney Poitier became the first Black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor — but the trail he blazed extended leaps and bounds beyond his background or profession. Jill and I send our love and prayers to his loved ones.”
The late actor is survived by his wife, Joanna Shimkus, six daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.