Sidney Poitier: From a Tomato Farm to a Symbol of America’s Black Struggle

Sidney Poitier, the first black dandy in Hollywood, leaves after his death this Friday at the age of 94 a trace of rectitude, elegance and knowing how to be that no other actor has been able to impersonate like him in the more than 50 years of career that he leaves to his backs.

But above all, and almost beyond his stamp as the first black actor to win an Oscar (“Lilies of the Field”, 1964), Poitier was the symbol of Hollywood during the civil rights movement, a period in which who became the biggest star in the American film industry.

The death of Potier has been confirmed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Bahamas in a statement in which he does not specify the cause of death of the legendary actor, born in Miami in 1927 and of natural parents from the island of Cat.

The American interpreter, director, activist and diplomat of Bahamian origin was a true Hollywood idol, with fifty films behind him, including To Sir, with Love “,” In the Heat of the Night “and” Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner “, released between June and December 1967 – just as the streets burned – hits that cemented its iconic status in American society.

Those interpretations, which to a greater or lesser extent spoke of racism in the United States, helped break down the social barriers between African Americans and whites, and made him the first big black star in the industry.

Poitier did it with talent, conscience, integrity, charisma and extraordinary charm, without preventing his characters from slapping back or demanding respect with angry coldness.

His figure was a balm for the public, someone with the restraint of Martin Luther King in the midst of rebellion and convulsion.

His films showed the American divide, but also the desire and desire to unite to leave the confrontation behind, a message that was burned into the actor’s impassive face, an image of resistance and a banner of dignity in a time when cinema was crying out for the figure of a hero who exemplified that fight for equality.

And Poitier not only accepted that role, he stirred consciences.

“The blacks who appeared in the movies when I was starting out They were always negative stereotypes: clowns, dragged butlers, misfits … I chose not to be part of those clichés. I want my children to be reflected in the cinema “, explained the interpreter in 1967.

That Poitier was born in the United States was fortuitous. Her parents, Bahamian citizens and owners of a tomato farm, traveled to Miami to sell the harvest when the woman went into labor prematurely.

Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, but grew up with his six siblings on Cat Island, the humble town in the Bahamas where he spent his first ten years of life. From there he moved to Nassau and shortly after he went to Florida to live with one of his older brothers.

Only then did he begin to see the racism that existed in that country that was beginning to be his home, where he went with a request from his mother: “Captivate them, son. Make them neutral.”

With no education, barely any money, but determined to become an artist, Poitier traveled to New York in search of opportunities, although at first he spent more time washing dishes than learning to read.

In 1945 he entered a theatrical education program and, just five years later, landed his first film role: “” No Way Out, “directed by a Joseph L. Mankiewicz who had set out to make films that featured African-American artists. .

Later titles such as “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Edge of the City” (1957), “The Defiant Ones” (1958), “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961) or “Pressure Point” (1962), before he won the Oscar and linked the three films that solidified him as a transcendent talent.

Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, he ventured into directing films such as “Buck and the Preacher” and “Stir Crazy” – starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor – although he continued to appear in works such as “Shoot to Kill “,” Little Nikita “,” Sneakers “and” The Jackal “.

His last role was in the telefilm “The Last Brickmaker in America” ​​in 2001, a year before the Hollywood Academy awarded him the honorary Oscar from Denzel Washington, his great successor in the industry.

Poitier took the stage and, after putting his hand to his heart, said: “I accept this award in memory of all the African-American actors who fought before me in the difficult years”, with the same pose of dignity and composure with which his most remembered characters faced ignorance and hatred.

His last public appearance was at the 86th edition of the Oscars, in 2014, where he presented an award with Angelina Jolie; in 2016 he was awarded an honorary Bafta.