With the unfortunate passing of activist, actor and director Sidney Poitier (as reported by NBC news), it’s important that we remember how big of a mark he left in not just our minds, but in the collective heart of Black America.
No Way Out (1950), The Defiant Ones (1958), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1067) and To Sir, With Love (1967), are just a few of the works by Poitier that left an imprint on its viewers due to the rare, dignified presence he brought to each character. In No Way Out, Poitier was not a butler or a cook, he was a doctor. In fact, he portrayed the first black doctor at the fictional hospital. When falsely accused of killing a patient and having racial slurs repeatedly thrown at him, Poitier’s character does not respond with violence or rage- he is calm and collected. This unwavering attitude would become something that Poitier was known, and was at times critiqued by the black community at the time for. A 1967 review (according to CNN) stated that he often portrayed a one dimensional figure.
“A good guy in a totally white world, with no wife, no sweetheart, no woman to love or kiss, helping the white man solve the white man’s problem,” Playwright Cliffort Mason wrote.
Despite the criticism Poitier received for presenting a far too idealistic Black man, Poitier did so in a career-long effort to change the lens Black people were viewed through. No Way Out was not only Poitier’s first film role. It was, according to Britannica, one of the first films to directly deal with the issue of racism. Poitier knew the impact of the portrayal of Black men in the media as Black first and human second and he made it clear that his work was an effort to change that.
“The kind of Negro played on the screen was always negative, buffoons, clowns, shuffling butlers, really misfits. This was the background when I came along 20 years ago and I chose not to be a party to the stereotyping, ” Poitier said (via NBC news).
So much so that in response to reporters attempting to discuss his race rather than him or his work, Poitier stated he did want to be viewed as a binary on the basis of his race.
“You ask me questions that continually fall within the ‘negro-ness’ of my life. You ask me questions that pertain to the narrow scope of the summer riots (of 1967). I am an artist, a man, American, and contemporary. I am an awful lot of things, so I wish you would pay me the respect due and not simply ask me about those things,” Poitier said (via PBS).
According to NBC news at the time of his death, Poitier was married to retired actress, Joanna Shimkus, and is survived by daughters Anika, Sydney Tamiaa (with Shimkus), Beverly, Pamela, Sherri and Gina (from his first marriage to Juanita Hardy).