Death of Sidney Poitier, first black Hollywood star

He was notably the first black man to receive the Oscar for best actor in 1964. Sidney Poitier died at the age of 94, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Bahamas, where the actor grew up, announced on Friday. “We have lost an icon, a hero, a mentor, a fighter, and a national treasure,” he wrote on his Facebook page about the actor, without mentioning the cause of his death.

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Before him, Hollywood confined black actors to the roles of butlers or village idiots: Sidney Poitier had shattered these stereotypes by playing exemplary personalities in the 1950s to 1970s, thus participating in the slow change in mentalities.

Legendary actor and first African-American actor to have ascended to leading roles, Sidney Poitier had also received an honorary Oscar in 2002 for “his extraordinary performances, his dignity, his style and his intelligence”. “I accept this award on behalf of all the African-American actors and actresses who have preceded me (…) and on whose shoulders I have been able to lean to envision my future”, replied the actor thanking “The visionary choices of a handful of producers, directors and studio directors”. That same evening, Denzel Washington became the second African-American to receive the Oscar for best actor: “I will never reach your height and I will always follow my steps in yours”.

Born prematurely in Miami, Florida, on February 20, 1927, when his parents moved from the neighboring Bahamas, Sidney Poitier thus obtained dual American and Bahamian nationality.

To escape the racist laws of Florida, Sidney Poitier left for New York at a very young age. His strong Caribbean accent led him to be refused by the “American Negro Theater”. He’s working to get rid of it.

Engaged in 1946 on Broadway, he was noticed by director Joseph Mankiewicz. For his first film (“The Door opens” – 1950), he plays a doctor at the bedside of two white racists. The film, censored in the southern United States, launched his career.

In 1964, he was the first African-American to win the Oscar for best actor for “Le Lys des champs”. “The journey was long to get there,” he said very moved, receiving the golden statuette.

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Thanks to his roles, the public was able to conceive that African-Americans could be a doctor (“The door opens” – 1950), engineer, teacher (“Les anges aux poings tightés” – 1967), or even a policeman (” In the heat of the night ”- 1967).

But at 37, when the incandescent actor receives his Oscar, he’s the only star of color in Hollywood.

“The film industry was not yet ready to raise more than one personality from minorities to the rank of star”, he deciphered in his autobiography “This Life”. “At the time, (…) I endorsed the hopes of a whole people. I had no control over the content of the films (…) but I could refuse a role, which I did many times ”.

Three years after his Oscar, he is the hero of three huge box-office hits (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, “Angels with Clenched Fists” and “In the Heat of the Night”). He becomes even more popular than Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

In “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” in 1967, he plays the fiance of a young white bourgeois presenting him to his parents, a couple of intellectuals who believe themselves to be open-minded. The meeting is a shock, and gives a major film on the racism of the time.

In Hollywood, however, little has changed for black actors. Pointed out by the most militant, one erodes his role of ideal son-in-law, far from the discrimination experienced by his fellows. He inherits the nicknames “Uncle Tom”, “lackey”, “million dollar shoe shine”.

At the start of the 1970s, a new era for black cinema opened with “Blaxploitation” and its more radical films. “My career as a Hollywood star was coming to an end,” analyzed the actor who then devoted himself to directing.

In 1997, he played Nelson Mandela then the first black judge of the American Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall.

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