by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Now this man is truly the definition of a living legend. A pioneer for African-Americans in the entertainment industry and for years the only African-American that was able to earn certain roles. A civil rights activist as much as he is an actor, Sidney Poitier broke barriers and defied the status quo of what African-Americans can do it Hollywood. A trailblazer for all modern actors of color and all minorities in the entertainment industry.
The first part that gained Sidney Poitier critical acclaim and audience recognition was as a troubled inner city student in Richard Brooks’ film Blackboard Jungle (1955) opposite Glenn Ford as a hard working teacher determined to do his job with resistance from the students and faculty. It was a great film and Poitier stole every scene he was in, which would lead to bigger leading roles opposite some of the biggest names in Hollywood. For the rest of the 1950’s and throughout most of the 1960’s Sidney Poitier would be the token black actor to earn all of the biggest roles Hollywood had for African-Americans.
His best role is often cited as Lilies of the Field (1963) where Poitier made history becoming the first African-American to win the Best Actor Academy Award, something no other actor would accomplish until 2001 when Denzel Washington won Best Actor for Training Day. As great as Sidney Poitier was as the kind and helpful handyman in Lilies of the Field, I really think his best performance and the one he should have taken home the Best Actor Oscar for was released five years earlier when he starred as an escaped fugitive chained to Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones (1958). It deals with racial prejudice head on, in a way that most mainstream films were afraid to tackle in the 1950’s during the height of the civil rights movement. I would argue that his other two best performances were both released in 1967. A very influential year in cinema that changed motion pictures with films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Cool Hand Luke, Sidney Poitier contributed two of his best performances in two highly important motion pictures of that year. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night both have stood the test of time and emerged as films that dealt with racism and the changing culture clash in the United States during the late 1960’s, the latter of which would win the Academy Award for Best Picture and earn Poitier’s costar Rod Steiger Best Actor.
Throughout the 70’s as cinema changed Sidney Poitier starred in less groundbreaking and influential classics but instead chose to test his comedic talents and also tried directing with films like Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and A Piece of the Action (1977). He would take eleven years off from acting to focus on directing and producing making his return with two films in 1988. The first was Shoot to Kill where he starred as an FBI agent hunting a killer through the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest which I actually think is a terrific action picture and one of Poitier’s most underrated performances. The other was a cold war spy thriller with Poitier again playing an FBI agent tracking down Soviet spies in Little Nikita. This essentially marked the beginning of the end for Sidney Poitier. Throughout the 1990’s he would take parts in TV movies and miniseries’. To date his final acting role in a theatrically released motion picture was in 1997’s The Jackal. A remake of the 1973 classic The Day of The Jackal, Poitier once again is playing an FBI agent after a killer. He is credited after big stars Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, who were both in diapers when Poitier started making history in the movie business. Today Sidney Poitier is 90 years old and enjoying retirement. He has a legacy that impacted Hollywood and civil rights for African-Americans and had one of the most influential careers of any actor. It is doubtful that he will return to perform in front of the camera anytime soon, but it would be nice if he had one final role that was not a supporting part in a mediocre remake of a cold-war thriller. The Jackal has some good moments, but Sidney Poitier could have done much better for his final motion picture role.