2013 has quietly developed into a groundbreaking year for black actors and directors. Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ryan Coogler’s FRUITVALE STATION starring Michael B. Jordan and Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER starring Forest Whitaker are all possible Oscar contenders for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor while Idris Elba’s performance in MANDELA: A LONG WALK TO FREEDOM has also garnered considerable critical attention in recent months. These talented individuals may end up making history at the 86th Academy Awards ceremony next year if they receive the award nominations many claim they deserve. And while I don’t think you can measure a film’s value by the awards it receives it would be naïve to assume that those gold statues and the publicity they generate don’t hold any weight.

In Hollywood winning an Oscar can open doors and close deals. The attention they procure can introduce you and your work to vast communities of people who may have never taken notice or been exposed to it before. Despite its fluctuating ratings, the Academy Awards is the most-watched award show in the world and that kind of exposure makes Oscar gold invaluable. And few people understand the value of Oscar gold as well as Sidney Poitier.

When Poitier took home the Oscar for Best Actor in April of 1964 it was more than just a reward for his exceptional performance in LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963). It was the first time that the prestigious award had been given to a black man and it signaled an unstoppable sea-change that was happening in Hollywood and across the country in regards to racial inequality and long standing prejudices. As Aram Goudsouzian poignantly points out in his biography of the actor (Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon):

“In an era when blacks demonstrated for rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution, Poitier was popular culture’s foremost symbol of racial democracy. Before his 1950 film debut, images of blacks in film consisted of the stereotypes that justified racial segregation: oversexed bucks, absurd pickaninnies, beefy mammies, grinning song-and-dance men, and slothful comic servants. Poitier’s image contradicted this burden. By the late 1950s, he was the Martin Luther King of the movies, an emblem of middle-class values, Christian sacrifice, and racial integration. Like college students staging sit-ins at lunch counters, like marchers weathering blasts from fire hoses, like civil rights leaders employing patriotic rhetoric, Poitier generated sympathy for black equality. In 1964, the year that King won the Nobel Prize and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, Poitier won an Academy Award for Lilies of the Field, cementing his position as the film industry’s token response to the civil rights movement.”

These days it’s much too easy to take Poitier’s screen persona for granted but throughout the sixties the tall, extremely handsome and immensely talented actor was a powerful symbol of social change. While it might be easy for some to diminish his accomplishments as “the film industry’s token response for the civil rights movement,” Poitier presented the image of an outspoken, intelligent and sensitive black man to generations of film viewers who desperately needed a remedy to counteract all the racist imagery and prejudice that had been perpetuated by Hollywood for decades.

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To his credit, Poitier is able to effortlessly command attention and you want to follow him wherever he takes you. His quiet smoldering intensity on screen is more exhilarating than threatening and you eagerly await the moment when he’ll eventually explode and bring down a fiery storm of smart discourse and righteous anger on one of his unsuspecting costars. I write this as an unabashed fan but Poitier has had plenty of detractors throughout his career. The actor endured pointed criticism from racists as well as radicals in the sixties who thought he was perpetuating his own myths on screen. His critics often complained that he didn’t fully represent the scope and complexity of the black experience in America but I think that’s an impossible burden to place on any single actor. Today we can still debate how little or how far we’ve come in regards to the various ways in which race is depicted on screen but Poitier’s impressive career remains an important Hollywood milestone and a continual source of inspiration for many.

Tonight Poitier’s powerful presence will dominate TCM where you can see the actor in three of his most successful films; THE DEFIANT ONES (1956), A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1960) and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967). They are part of a series TCM has titled “Fighting Prejudice” which highlights a selection of classic movies that explore racial prejudice in creative and often surprisingly smart ways. Poitier didn’t win an Oscar for any of the aforementioned films but he delivers some remarkable performances in all of them that often exceed his Oscar-winning role in LILIES OF THE FIELD.

Further Reading:
– Four Black Actors Vie for the Best Actor Oscar by Chaz Ebert
– Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon – An Introduction by Aram Goudsouzian
– Sidney Poitier and The Civil Rights Movement in Hollywood by Margaret Perry

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published on TCM.com December 5, 2013