Cover Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier at the 39th Academy Awards in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, 10th April 1967. He is presenting the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. (Photo: Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Why Sidney Poitier's legacy in film and activism must be remembered by today's generation and the next

Sidney Poitier was a powerhouse in the American film industry in the 50s. He blazed the trail for many African-American actors by earning accolade after accolade and eventually becoming an esteemed actor of his generation. Poitier also worked behind the camera as a director and producer, completely shattering the colour barrier in the film industry.

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His secret to performing, as it turns out, was his accurate portrayal of emotion in film which stems from his experiences. "[Embarrassment], fear, shame, anger, hostility, every conceivable emotion—we've all danced with many times in our lives, none of us have experienced anything exclusive in that regard. For actors, that's the storehouse you go to," he explains in a video by the American Film Institute.

Poitier's best films were Something of Value in 1957 (wherein he became the first black actor to win the first international film award), The Defiant Ones in 1958 (which first earned him a Best Actor nomination), Lillies of the Field in 1963, and To Sir, with Love in 1967 among many others.

A man of experience

But before Poitier arrived in Hollywood, the actor and filmmaker was just a young boy helping his father on a tomato farm on Cat Island. And at around 10 years old, when the farm fell through, he and his family had moved to Nassau. But after getting into trouble as a teenager, Poitier was sent to the United States by his father to live with his brother in Miami, Florida, where he enlisted in the US Army.

He served briefly in the medic unit. But after he was discharged, Poitier had his eye on a completely different practice—acting.

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An advocate of human rights

1950 to 1960s Hollywood was still, unfortunately, infused with different forms of discrimination and racism. But Poitier made history by taking roles that most black actors have not played at the time, including playing Dr Luther Brooks in No Way Out.

Regardless of his laudable performance that brought forth diversity in the film industry, which later led to the discussion of race, Poitier insisted that he wanted to fight for the self instead of focusing on race.

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In a conversation with Oprah, he explains, "There were two whites on our island. One was a doctor, another a shopkeeper's daughter. And it never dawned on me that they were anything but people. . .White didn't mean power."

He continues, "Racism was horrendous, but there were other aspects to life. There are those who allow their lives to be defined only by race".

In fact, he has confronted the media for asking questions regarding the colour of his skin other than his work, calling it sensationalism.

"The big picture is that racism has been an awful experience—but there are other experiences. We need to keep an eye on the other human experiences to give ourselves the fullness and the breadth of our own humanity. Our humanity is served back to us through the eyes of those who have diminished us. And they serve back to us a view of ourselves that is incomplete. If we don't look to the bigger picture, our view will narrow to that which is constantly fed to us," he shares with Oprah.

He has spoken more of this matter in his written works: his memoir This Life, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography in 2000, and Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter in 2008.

Indeed, Portier was an "artist, man, American, contemporary" and more. And he will be remembered as such by this generation and the next.


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