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Poitier on the set of Lilies of the Field in 1963. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Poitier on the set of Lilies of the Field in 1963. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier dies, the first Black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor

Poitier was a titan for the barriers he broke in Hollywood as its first leading Black man.

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Sidney Poitier, Hollywood’s first-ever Black leading man, died on the night of Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022 at 94 years old.

News of Poitier’s death went public through the office of the Prime Minister of the Bahamas on Jan. 7, 2022.

Poitier was born to a family of Bahamian farmers in 1927 who owned a plot of land on Cat Island, a central district of the country. They would often travel between the farm and Miami, Florida to sell tomatoes and other produce.

He moved to the U.S. when he was 15 to live with his brother’s family in Miami and then to New York City a year later. 

Amid World War II, Poitier lied about his age to join the army. He was assigned to a psychiatric hospital in New York, and the conditions he saw made him seek an early discharge. 

After that, Poitier got his first break in the entertainment industry by successfully auditioning for a spot in a production by the American Negro Theater. When he first entered the industry, Poitier needed to overcome a thick Bahamian accent.

His Hollywood breakthrough came in 1950’s No Way Out, which saw Poitier play a doctor treating a bigoted Caucasian patient. It got noticed, and led to a slow rise in the prominence of his roles, which were not offered to other Black actors of the time.

Poitier’s historic Academy Award for Best Actor came 13 years later after he played an itinerant worker in Lilies of the Field who encounters a group of East German nuns in the Arizona desert. Following an introduction, the nuns believe Poitier’s character to be sent from God to build them a chapel.

With the award, he became the second Black person to ever win an Academy Award, following Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress for playing Mammy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind.

Before the Academy Award win, Poitier also received two Golden Globe nominations for roles in 1959’s Porgy and Bess and the 1961 film adaptation of the play A Raisin in the Sun. He also starred in the theater version, which premiered on Broadway in 1959. 

Arguably his most successful character was Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, who first appears in the 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night, where he travels to the deep South to investigate a murder. 

Throughout his career, Poitier was kept out of romantic roles, but with those he did get, it allowed audiences across the U.S. and world to see Black people in popular culture beyond servitude. In acting and directing, the themes of his films often explored and reflected the changing racial relations of the U.S.

For his career, Poitier was granted an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009, among a plethora of other worldwide recognitions.

In short, he was an icon and someone who will never be forgotten.

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