Sidney Poitier was a light in Hollywood and in life, illuminating the path for Black actors who came after him and providing the framework for creating a meaningful and remarkable career.
The trailblazing actor died Thursday in the Bahamas at 94, acting director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas Eugene Torchon-Newry confirmed to the Associated Press.
Poitier broke barriers throughout his five-decade career with roles that addressed race in film before mainstream Hollywood did the same. He became the first African American actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actor in 1958, and six years later he became the first Black man to win an Academy Award for “Lilies of the Field.”
“Before Sidney, African American actors had to take supporting roles in major studio films that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country. But you couldn’t cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture,” Denzel Washington said at the 2002 Academy Awards, presenting Poitier with an honorary Oscar. “He was the reason a movie got made: the first solo, above-the-title African American movie star.”
Poitier’s legacy in film history, too, is that of an icon. In honor of Poitier’s life and career, we’re looking back at some of his quintessential movies.
‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’
Poitier starred as the love interest opposite Katharine Houghton in this 1967 film, which offered a positive depiction of interracial couples during a time when more than a handful of states still had laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
A milestone in its day, this earnest and well-acted — if rather tame — drama with comic moments was the first mainstream film to explore the complexities of an interracial relationship. An insightful tale, it tackles subtler forms of racism among educated people who view themselves as tolerant.
In 2017, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was inducted into the Library of Congress.
‘Lilies of the Field’
This 1963 film won Poitier his first Academy Award, making him the first Black man to win an Oscar for best actor.
He plays Homer Smith, a handyman who on his travels encounters German nuns who believe he’s sent from God to help build a church.
In 2020, the film became another of Poitier’s works selected by the National Film Registry to be immortalized in the Library of Congress.
“‘Lilies of the Field’ stirs up such great remembrances in our family, from the littlest Poitiers watching a young and agile ‘Papa’ to the oldest – Papa Sidney himself!” Poitier said in a statement to the Library of Congress.
‘The Defiant Ones’
Poitier became the first African American actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for “The Defiant Ones” in 1958.
In the film, Tony Curtis and Poitier play escaped prisoners, one white and one Black, who are chained together. At a time when racial tensions are high and the two seemingly have nothing in common, Curtis and Poitier’s characters must play nice to survive. Initially their cooperation is a means of survival, but the two grow to form a deep bond and love for each other.
‘To Sir, with Love’
In this 1967 film, Poitier plays an American engineer-turned-teacher at a London high school school with rowdy teens who’ve run off about every other teacher they’ve had. His character Mark Thackeray slowly wins them over by adopting a new method of teaching centered around respect.
Poitier reprised the role in 1996’s “To Sir, with Love II.” Peter Bogdanovich, who died days before Poitier, directed the film.
‘In the Heat of the Night’
One of Poitier’s most legendary films, the actor stars as Black detective Virgil Tibbs from Philadelphia who is forced to solve a murder in a racist town in Mississippi alongside an equally racist police chief.
“In the Heat of the Night” is also the film where Poitier uttered his famous line: “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” He says it after the police chief insults Poitier’s character by asking him what they call him in Philadelphia, because “Virgil is a funny name.”
The 1967 film won five Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor for Rod Steiger, who played Chief of Police Bill Gillespie.
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‘Shoot to Kill’
This 1988 movie marked Poitier’s return to the big screen after being absent from films for 11 years.
Poitier plays FBI agent Warren Stantin and stars alongside Tom Berenger and Kirstie Alley in this thriller, where Poitier’s character is hunting down a thief who’s taken Alley’s character hostage.
The film holds a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a rarity.
Contributing: Hannah Yasharoff and Claudia Puig