Sidney Poitier has died at the age of 94, according to reports. Few names resonate so loudly in the pantheon of Hollywood as Poitier‘s: the titanic screen presence who, amid the tumultuous era of the Civil Rights movement, became the first Black actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor in 1963. He will, without doubt, be remembered as one of the most important artists of his generation.
He went on to redefine what could be the Hollywood leading man, starring in a succession of hits. 1967 would arguably be his most definitive year, starring in the British drama To Sir, With Love, Norman Jewison‘s hit mystery flick In The Heat of the Night, and one of the first films to depict an interracial marriage on American screens, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states when Dinner? was filmed, being considered an onerous taboo across much of American society — even beyond the racially discriminative southern states.
A romantic comedy-drama with elements of farce and slapstick, Stanley Kramer‘s film takes aim not at the rural bigotry that dominated (and, indeed, continues to dominate) the American perception of racial politics, but that of northern liberals. This is epitomized, to great comic effect, by Spencer Tracy, who plays the father of Katharine Houghton‘s Joanna, in turn reacting poorly when she brings home her boyfriend, revealed to be Poitier. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, and though some contemporary critics consider the dramedy politically dated, its release remains a vital moment in Hollywood history.
Poitier‘s other big hit of the year, In The Heat of the Night, similarly centers Poitier‘s race, albeit as part of a stylish crime thriller as opposed to a funny domestic chamber piece. Despite it holding less contemporary awards success, some argue it to be the greater of the two works. He plays Philadelphia police detective Virgil Tibbs, arrested on suspicion of murder by the racist police chief of a tiny Mississippi town, played by a typically gruff Rod Steiger. Proving his innocence, the two form an unlikely partnership with the aim to track down the real killer.
In a retrospective review of Norman Jewison‘s film, The Hollywood Reporter‘s John Mahoney raves about Poitier‘s performance: “[it] both transcends and lifts the pretensions of the film,” he argues, “eschewing earlier mannerisms and projecting a wealth of emotion in facial communication”. Poitier‘s deft control, and range of emotionality was what made him one of the greats, as reflected by his huge swathe of trophies. Along with his myriad film awards wins, including an Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009; indeed, Poitier‘s round of applause reportedly rivaled that of the president.
His loss, but a day after the passing of the similarly impactful screen giant Peter Bogdanovich, marks another sad transitional moment.