How do you write about Sidney Poitier and feel you that are doing him justice? How do you recap a repertoire of some of the most important and beloved films of the last century, a career that spanned decades, and a legacy that broke barriers? How do you thank someone who’s taken you from crayons to perfume?
Sidney Poitier holds a distinct honor of having seven films in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry: “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Porgy and Bess (1959), “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961), “Lilies of the Field” (1963), “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” (1967), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), and as the narrator of the film “King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis“ (1970).
His number of credits in the National Film Registry equals some of Hollywood’s other beloved legends, including John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant.
In 1964, he became the first Black man (and Bahamian) to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in his role as Homer Smith in “Lilies of the Field.” As Anne Bancroft read the esteemed list of nominees (Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Rex Harrison, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier), the applause was the loudest for Poitier, and the crowd roared with happiness when his name was read as the winner. (“Amen!” said the music accompanying him to the podium, the tune of the traditional gospel song used in the movie. )
It would certainly not be the last award or accolade he would receive. That list is long and includes two more Academy Award nominations and a 2001 Honorary Academy Award for his contribution to American cinema. He’s received ten Golden Globe nominations, two Primetime Emmys, six BAFTA nominations, one Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination, one Grammy Award, and a British Academy Film Award.
His numerous achievement awards include the AFI Life Achievement Award, a Kennedy Center Honor, the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Of distinct honor, Mr. Poitier received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009 and an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II in 1974.
A few months ago, the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles dedicated the “Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby” in his honor.
His list of films and the stars he’s worked with is even longer, and even more important is the list of people that he influenced and inspired. This touching reel from the 2002 Academy Awards only scratches the surface.
Whether he chose great movies, or the great movies chose him, he seemed to do it on his terms and with strong conviction. In a 2016 interview with Leslie Stahl, Poitier said that before signing the contract to play the role of Virgil Tibbs in the 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night,” he told the studio, “If he slaps me. I’m going to slap him back. You will put on paper that the studio agrees that the film will be shown nowhere in the world with me standing there taking the slap from the man.” The studio agreed. It was a major script change and one that was written into his contract.
Call him “Mister Tibbs” or “Sir,” with love, but there will never be another Sidney Poitier.
For a more in depth look at Sidney Poitier, you can read essays posted about his films in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.