Hollywood’s First Major Black Movie Star, Sidney Poitier passes away; The man who broke racial barriers

Bahamian-American actor, film director, activist, and ambassador, Sidney Poitier passed away at the age of 94, an official from the Bahamian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on January 7. Poitier was the first major black movie star of Hollywood who won mainstream popularity with a series of groundbreaking roles in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Sidney Poitier created a distinct film tradition with three 1967 films at a time when segregation prevailed in most parts of the United States. He was a man who broke the barriers of racism with his courage and willpower where he inspired a generation during the civil rights movement. 

With the performance in the American comedy-drama film, ‘Lillies of the filed”,  Poitier became the first to win the best actor, Oscar, six years after he was nominated for an Academy Award with 1958’s “The Defiant Ones”.

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.”

His Tibbs character from In the Heat of the Night was immortalized in two sequels – They Call Me Mister Tibbs! in 1970 and The Organization in 1971 – and became the basis of the television series In the Heat of the Night starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins.

Born in Miami, he was a struggler, against poverty, illiteracy, and prejudice to become one of the first Black actors to be known and accepted in major roles by mainstream audiences. 

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Beginning in the 1970s, Poitier also directed various comedy films, including Stir Crazy (1980), starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, among other films. After nearly a decade away from acting, he returned to television and film starring in Shoot to Kill (1988) and Sneakers.  In all, he acted in more than 50 films and directed nine, starting in 1972 with Buck and the Preacher in which he co-starred with Belafonte.

Moreover, he received two Academy Award nominations, ten Golden Globes nominations, two Primetime Emmy Awards nominations, six BAFTA nominations, eight Laurel nominations, and one Screen Actors Guild Awards(SAG) nomination. From 1997 to 2007, he was the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan.