Sidney Poitier, the first Black Hollywood movie star, has died. He was 94 years old.
Poitier was the first Black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1963, a pivotal moment that opened the doors for Black people in Hollywood and the world.
Poitier’s death was confirmed by Eugene Torchon-Newry, acting director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas, where Poitier was raised.
Poitier was born in Miami, the youngest of seven children. He spent his childhood in the Bahamas and moved back to Miami when he was 14 years old, living with one of his older brothers. He then moved to New York, where he worked as a dishwasher and was taught how to read and write by an older waiter. “That man, every night, the place is closed, everyone‘s gone, and he sat there with me week after week after week,” said Poitier to CBS News. “And he told me about punctuations. He told me where dots were and what the dots mean here between these two words, all of that stuff.” Poitier then got a job at the American Negro Theatre, where he perfected his craft and worked hard to soften his accent, until he caught the eye of Hollywood.
Poitier had a difficult time finding roles in Hollywood in the 50’s, a time where racial tensions were high and there were hardly any complex roles for Black people. He rejected roles that were demeaning and racist, and became famous for playing parts that featured him as a doctor, detective or student. In 1958, he was nominated for Best Actor for his role in “The Defiant Ones,” where he starred as an escaped prisoner. During the peak of his career, Poitier was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood and a huge box office draw. Still, unlike his white counterparts, Poitier was never cast as a romantic lead.
Poitier continued to appear on films until the early 2000’s. He also developed a career as a director, directing the films “Stir Crazy” and “Uptown Saturday Night.” In the year 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. “It‘s been said that Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones ... milestones of artistic excellence, milestones of America’s progress,” Obama said.