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The Reel Critic: Remembering Sidney Poitier

Written by on January 7, 2022

“To say [Sidney Poitier] was an icon, to say that he was a trailblazer, doesn’t quite describe his impact. I’m still looking for a word.”

– Reggie “The Reel Critic” Ponder

Pictured above: Sidney Poitier signs autographs before the opening of the 14th International Film Festival at the West Berlin Congress Hall on June 26, 1964 in Berlin. Poitier, the groundbreaking actor and enduring inspiration who transformed how Black people were portrayed on screen, became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Lead Performance and the first to be a top box-office draw, died Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. He was 94. (AP Photo/Edwin Reichert, File)

Actor Sidney Poitier poses for a portrait in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Monday, June 2, 2008. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

Sidney Poitier changed the history of film.

The first Black Hollywood star and the first Black actor to win an Oscar for best lead performance, Sidney Poitier passed away the night of Thursday, Jan. 6. He was 94 years old.

On this episode of “The Reel Critic,” Reggie Ponder shares his thoughts on Poitier’s life and legacy. Listen to “The Reel Critic” on Spotify and read Reggie’s thoughts below.

The news of Sidney Poitier’s death marks a sad day for humanity… a real sad day. Most people know him as an actor, but to me, he was much, much more than an actor.

He became the first Black man to win an Academy Award. He won for the film Lilies of the Field in 1963. And if you think about it, in the terms of what was happening during that time, what a breakthrough for Hollywood for this to happen. And while it was a milestone for Black actors, it was also a proud cultural moment for all Black people. Poitier had this grace and dignity to him that not only made Black people proud, but it also challenged the way Blacks were seen in this nation. And beyond this whole notion that we were less than was somehow eroded by Sidney Poitier.

Sidney Poitier, star of “To Sir With Love,” places his hands in wet cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on June 23, 1967. (AP Photo/File)

He took these roles that challenged that perception, and that challenged the place of Black men in society. He paved the way for Black actors in Hollywood, and he took every opportunity to make sure to help Black actors in Hollywood. So take the film In The Heat of the Night (1967), for example. He plays a Philadelphia detective passing through Mississippi. He gets detained because he is a suspect in a murder that happens down there. After that gets cleared up, for some reason he reluctantly stays to help clear up the murder.

In one scene, he’s slapped by the bigoted white police chief, and he slaps him back! Whoa, think about this: a Black man, and he’s in the South. He slaps this guy back! Wow. It was a moment for Black folks, because as a people… it signaled that they were on the same level — which wasn’t the way Blacks were being treated during that time period. It’s reported that before agreeing to do the film, Poitier requested a script change to add the retaliatory slap, and even rewrote his contract to prohibit the studio from cutting the scene.

When asked about it, he said that most Black folks would think, well, if he hadn’t slapped him back, that just wouldn’t be realistic that he would do that. And I’m really glad that he stood up for Black people in that way. Then, take the movie Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967). A lot of you guys probably haven’t even seen that movie, but wow, what an important movie! This is a story about interracial love — which has caused many Black men to have been killed for looking at, for whistling at, for thinking about or even the white man thinking that you were thinking about a white woman. Not only was this an important movie, but he took this important role. So yes, he was an actor, but he was also an activist in film. The things that he did in film makes me say I loved Sidney Poitier, because he wouldn’t take the kind of roles which demeaned Black people.

Sidney Poitier, left, and Sydney Tamiia Poitier arrive at the Oscars on Sunday, March 2, 2014, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

And while he did these mainstream films, he also did films about Black people with Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby. I remember vividly watching Buck and the Preacher (1972) with Harry Belafonte. That was his directorial debut, and I would totally recommend people check that out. You’ll see that he was not only this thespian and from a serious actor perspective, but he was funny as well. And you really saw that when he directed and co-starred with Bill Cosby in the comedy caper Uptown Saturday Night (1974), he was in Let’s Do It Again (1976). And then, A Piece of the Action (1977). I couldn’t wait for all of those movies!

To say he was an icon, to say that he was a trailblazer, doesn’t quite describe his impact. I’m still looking for a word. Poitier also won a Grammy in 2000 for best spoken word album for his autobiography, The Measure of a Man. And I’m not generally starstruck, but this was a man I wanted to meet. And unfortunately I didn’t, but I want to meet him so much because he meant so much to the film industry, as well as to society in general.

I could speak about all his awards and his nominations, from the BAFTAs to the Emmys to winning a Presidential Freedom Award. He deserved all that. And more additionally, from an activist standpoint, he worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He knew Nelson Mandela. He even played Nelson Mandela in a movie.

Actor Sidney Poitier poses with his Oscar for best actor for “Lillies of the Field” at the 36th Annual Academy Awards in Santa Monica, Calif. on April 13, 1964. (AP Photo, File)

Sidney Poitier’s legacy extends beyond his filmography. And you can find it in the lives that he touched, in the people that he inspired, as well as in the work that he left behind. Sidney Poitier: Dead at 94… A life well-lived. There’ll be many more tributes to come. I’d like to encourage you to watch some of the films that I’ve mentioned here. You’ll learn a little bit about his acting ability, but you will also learn a little bit about the man.

By Reggie “The Reel Critic” Ponder

Transcribed by Ayana Contreras

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