TO SIR, WITH LOVE: Poitier’s enormous talent, grace to be celebrated this spring

By Janice Hayes Kyser

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — The extraordinary talent, power and grace of iconic actor Sidney Poitier soon will be on full display as three of the city’s top Black entertainment organizations plan to honor the trailblazing performer, producer and activist during celebrations this spring.

The Pan African Film Festival (PAFF), the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) and the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center (BHERC) will spotlight the legendary actor during upcoming events in March and April. While details are still being set, hundreds of admirers will join Hollywood glitterati to celebrate Poitier’s prolific body of work and his pioneering contributions to the film industry and to American culture.

“Mr. Poitier was our North Star, a powerful and shining example of enormous talent, integrity and humility,” said BHERC founder and President Sandra Evers-Manly. Her organization’s film festival also will feature tributes from members of the Black Producers Association, of which Poitier was a charter member.

“He didn’t need to be a member of the Black Producers Association for his career, but he got involved to help open doors of opportunities for others,” she said. “That is who he was. He wasn’t just about elevating himself; he was about elevating his people.”

Poitier, the first Black man to win an Academy Award Oscar for Best Actor in 1964, died at his Los Angeles home Jan. 6 at age 94. No information was released on the cause of death, but Poitier, who was granted a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1993. Memorial services are still being planned.

Heralded as the epitome of dignity and elegance, Poitier broke color barriers when he became the first Black performer to win an Oscar for a leading role and paved the way for generations of Black actors who followed.

“For my entire life, Sidney Poitier has been the very definition of what an actor is and should be,” said AAFCA President Gil Robertson. “He’s been a symbol of excellence, personified Black excellence, who was a majestic presence on screen. When you think about how groundbreaking his career was, you can’t help but be in awe.

“In many ways, he was the ambassador of Black masculinity, almost single-handedly debunking the worst stereotypes about us, ranging from his roles as an everyman to those where he played a doctor or teacher.”

Ayuko Babu, co-founder and executive director of PAFF, said the festival will include special honors for Poitier during their festival in April.

“Mr. Poitier was a loud voice letting the world know who we are when Jim Crow tried to muzzle us,” Babu said. “He portrayed his people with dignity and integrity, setting a standard of consciousness in Hollywood that elevated the roles available to Black actors.”

While the world saw Poitier as a trailblazing actor, producer and activist, his family saw him as a devoted husband and father and a source of joy and inspiration.

“He is our guiding light who lit up our lives with infinite love and wonder,” the Poitier family said in a statement. “His smile was healing, his hugs the warmest refuge and his laughter was infectious.

“We could always turn to him for wisdom and solace and his absence feels like a giant hole in our family and our hearts. Although he is no longer here with us in this realm, his beautiful soul will continue to guide and inspire us.”

Born in Miami but raised in the Bahamas, Poitier won the best actor Academy Award for his work in “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, and went on to become a major box office draw, a notion that was unheard of for a Black performer in the 1960s.

He cemented his legendary status with a trio of iconic 1967 roles: as Mark Thackeray in “To Sir With Love,” Detective Virgil Tibbs in “In the Heat of the Night” and as John Prentice — fiancé to a white woman — in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

Two scenes from “In the Heat of the Night” symbolized Poitier’s status as a trailblazer: one where he slaps a white southern aristocrat who slapped him after questioning his authority to investigate a murder in Mississippi and another where he refused to be called “boy” by exclaiming “They call me Mr. Tibbs.”

Poitier later said he insisted on responding after his character was slapped, “I said to [the producers], ‘In my life, whether I’m a detective or not, and I don’t care where I am, if such a thing happened to me, the likelihood is I would respond.’”

The film’s director, Norman Jewison, later called it “the slap heard round the world.”

Poitier’s films and roles directly attacked racial divides, and his emergence as a Hollywood star served as a beacon for Black performers that they could do more than portray servants, maids or musicians on screen.

In a statement, President Joe Biden said Poitier’s performances “held a mirror up to America’s racial attitudes in the 1950s and 1960s. With unflinching grandeur and poise — his singular warmth, depth and stature on screen — Sidney helped open the hearts of millions and changed the way America saw itself.”

Former President Barack Obama, who awarded Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 for his artistic and humanitarian achievements, called Poitier a “singular talent” who “epitomized dignity and grace.”

“Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together,” Obama wrote on Twitter. “He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans.”

Entertainer mogul Oprah Winfrey said Poitier “had an enormous soul that I will forever cherish.”

“For me, the greatest of the ‘Great Trees’ has fallen,” said Winfrey, who is executive producing a documentary with Apple Original Films examining Poitier’s prodigious life and career. “My honor to have loved him as a mentor. Friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher. The utmost, highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious, eloquent life.”

Poitier is survived by his wife of 45 years, Joanna, five daughters, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A sixth daughter, Gina, died in 2018.


City News Service contributed to this report.