Sidney Poitier, the first black man to earn an Academy Award for best actor, died in early January. While his talent and success were remarkable, perhaps more so was his steadfast approach to reforming how black men were portrayed in film – and by doing so, affecting the real-world lens through which audiences view them. Along with his artistry, we have lost a quiet but powerful voice for equity. Through his performance choices, he embodied how to lead by example.
Poitier had a long, celebrated career – including runs on Broadway and a shift into directing, which he appreciated for greater creative control. While his earliest career opportunities were more happenstance, he quickly became intent on bringing diversity to entertainment.
Often criticized for playing roles that didn’t reflect black life in America, Poitier described his efforts as “colorblind,” seeking to remove stereotypes in casting. He did so by accepting roles in which race was incidental to the character he played, and where black men were portrayed as educated, professional and accomplished, and were central to the plot. It’s important to remember that at the height of his career, several states in the US still had an official policy of segregation.
He was called upon by many to lead a race revolution in the movie industry, and some criticized him for what they deemed as not doing enough. Poitier admitted that most often his only creative control was in the ability to turn down roles, and he felt it was most important to show black men in everyday, ordinary roles. He defended his choices:
However inadequate my step appeared, it was important that we make it.
In his effort to lead black actors into Hollywood and on to appreciation by audiences, he chose a path of normalization and acceptance rather than one of conflict. Many of his roles reflected his real-life quiet rage, and perhaps his greatest talent was his ability to convey the constant angst of surviving as a black man, regardless of role, plot, and era.