The obituaries for Sidney Poitier, who died last week, at the age of ninety-four, inevitably led off with his 1964 Academy Award for Best Actor. That Oscar, the first in the category awarded to a Black actor, cemented Poitier as the Jackie Robinson of Hollywood, a watershed moment for the Academy, for the movies, and for generations of Black audiences. Years later, when accepting a lifetime-achievement award at the Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey remembered being a ten-year-old girl, watching from her linoleum floor in Milwaukee: “Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was Black. And I’d never seen a Black man being celebrated like that. And I’ve tried many, many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl—a kid watching from the cheap seats, as my mom came through the door bone-tired from cleaning other people’s houses.” But winning the Oscar was a more complicated experience for Poitier, who was already walking a tightrope as Hollywood’s sole Black matinée idol (with the possible addition of Harry Belafonte), and its symbolism became more curdled as the decades passed.
Until then, only one Black actor had received a competitive acting Oscar: Hattie McDaniel, for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). McDaniel had been typecast as sassy maids throughout her career, and the Oscar yoked her even tighter to a stereotype that was (fortunately) falling out of fashion. Poitier, who was born in 1927 and brought up in the Bahamas, represented new possibilities. His breakout role was in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out” (1950), as a doctor caring for a racist white patient. The film set the Poitier mold: a bright, clean-cut professional whose exceptional skill and equanimity make him “acceptable” in the white world, and who is often bound by circumstance to a racist counterpart. This was a vast improvement on the Mammy and Stepin Fetchit roles that preceded Poitier—and he had the megawatt charisma to pull it off—but it became another kind of trap. His characters were rarely able to show sexuality or anger. To maintain his squeaky-clean image, he took pains to keep the public from knowing about his years-long extramarital affair with Diahann Carroll, whom he met while filming “Porgy and Bess,” released in 1959. (Compare this with the endlessly publicized affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.) By then, he felt a heavy burden of representation. “As I see myself, I’m an average Joe Blow Negro,” he told the Times. “But, as the cats say in my area, I’m out there wailing for us all.” That same year, he was nominated for an Oscar, for “The Defiant Ones,” in which he plays a runaway from a chain gang who is handcuffed to a white convict, played by Tony Curtis. It was the first Best Actor nomination for a Black man, but, as Curtis (who was also nominated) wrote in his autobiography, the voters “weren’t going to give an Oscar to a black man or a Jew.” He was right: they both lost to David Niven, for “Separate Tables.” Like his character in “The Defiant Ones,” Poitier was handcuffed to a white industry, neither able to move forward without the other.
The role that pushed him over the line was, surprisingly, in “Lilies of the Field,” a sweet, laid-back movie based on a novella by William Edmund Barrett. Inspired by the Sisters of Walburga, who’d fled Hitler’s Germany to form an outpost in the wilds of Colorado, the book told the story of a Black itinerant handyman who stops near a run-down rural convent, where the nuns, believing that God has sent him (“Gott ist gut,” one cries), conscript him to build a chapel. Published in 1962, this simple tale of common humanity reflected the idealism of the Kennedy years, and who better to headline the movie version than Poitier? “I was being pushed to change the world as it related to me and mine,” he wrote in his 1980 autobiography, “This Life.” “I was being pushed to do the impossible.” (If you’re in the market for a Poitier autobiography, by the way, “This Life” is much dishier than his elder-statesman memoir, “The Measure of a Man.”) The film was shot in fourteen days, on a shoestring budget, and it wears its politics lightly; the critic Bosley Crowther wrote that Poitier’s character “could be a white man just as well.” But, in 1963, on the heels of the March on Washington, United Artists sensed an opportunity to sell the movie as a parable of tolerance. Poitier had attended the March among a cadre of movie stars, including Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando; Hollywood was still smarting from the blacklist era, and the industry’s embrace of the March was, the Times observed, an “indication that some creative leaders of the movie industry have decided it is time to rejoin the nation.”
“Lilies of the Field” opened in October, 1963, and was a modest success. Its come-together ethos was made more urgent after the Kennedy assassination, while the film was playing its second month at L.A.’s Egyptian Theatre. It expanded in December, with a “Calling All Churches” campaign geared toward religious and civic clubs. Even so, Poitier refused to campaign for an Oscar nomination, telling the columnist Sheilah Graham, “I’m an actor, not a politician.” Nevertheless, in late February, 1964, he was nominated for Best Actor. In Washington, President Johnson had taken up the Civil Rights Act, initiated by Kennedy. In February, it went to the Senate, where a group of Southern legislators launched a filibuster that would last an extraordinary seventy-five days. If there was ever a time for Hollywood to pick a side, it was then. Suddenly, “Lilies of the Field” became, in the words of the Los Angeles Times’ Oscar forecast, “a tribute to a Negro in a Negro-conscious world.” So strongly did the town’s sense of righteousness unite around Poitier that one of his competitors, Paul Newman (“Hud”), announced that he would skip the ceremony and support him.
Poitier viewed himself as “a dark horse, so to speak,” and considered not attending. Ultimately, he decided that “it would be good for black people to see themselves competing for the top honor,” he wrote, in “This Life.” As he sat in the audience, sweating and alone, he was seized with the fear of winning and saying something “dumb.” He recalled his inner monologue: “Think, Sidney, think, time is of the essence! Whatever I say must be the truth first, and it must be something intelligent and impressive that will leave the people in that room and the millions watching at home—leave them all duly and irrevocably impressed with the intelligence and decorum of one black actor, Sidney Poitier.” The line he came up with, and delivered moments later, on the stage of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, was laden with meanings: “Because it is a long journey to this moment, I am naturally indebted to countless numbers of people. . . .”
As the Times summed up the hoopla, “The outburst for Mr. Poitier was recognition not only of his talent, but also of the fact that Hollywood has felt guilty about color barriers of the past, some of which still exist here.” Poitier was doubtful. The day after the ceremony, he sat on a hotel sofa and told a reporter, “I like to think it will help someone. But I don’t believe my Oscar will be a sort of magic wand that will wipe away the restrictions on job opportunities for Negro actors.” In the Bahamas, the city of Nassau had a motorcade and an honorary banquet. In New York, the city declined requests for a ticker-tape parade, but Poitier was invited to City Hall to receive a medallion from the mayor. When two reporters kept asking him about civil-rights issues, he snapped back, “Why don’t you ask me human questions? Why is it everything you guys ask refers to the Negro-ness of my life and not my acting?” It was a rare instance of his exasperation bubbling to the surface, and he immediately added that he had intended no offense.
Poitier’s post-Oscar period was fruitful but frustrating. “I was now viewed as a fixture in the film world,” he wrote, “but my fellow black actors, almost to a man, were trapped in a drought of inactivity and unemployment that sapped and embittered whatever satisfaction they may have derived from the success of a single one of us.” As with McDaniel, the prize had ossified him, especially as times changed. In 1967, he starred in three films, whose combined box-office receipts made him the No. 1 star in America: “To Sir, with Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (Poitier, incredibly, wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for any of them, though his white co-stars Rod Steiger and Katharine Hepburn both won.) In each, he played a “civilized” Black man whose extraordinariness helps enlighten the regressive white characters who are forced into his company. Perhaps no celebrity could encompass the cultural crosscurrents, but Poitier, at his height, found himself ripe for taking down. That September, the Times ran an astonishing column, by the Black writer Clifford Mason, titled “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” Harking back to Poitier’s Oscar-winning role, Mason predicted that “until the day of complete honesty comes, white critics will gladly drag out a double standard and applaud every ‘advance’ in movies like ‘Lilies of the Field’ as so much American-style, democratic goodwill. Which is what the road to hell is paved with.”
The stunned Poitier called it “the most devastating and unfair piece of journalism I had ever seen.” But he noticed a resentment even among his Black peers, who “knew a naked truth about Hollywood: the motion picture industry was not yet ready to entertain more than one minority person at that level. I knew it too, and I couldn’t fight that.” Not long after, he built a house in the Bahamas and relocated there for four years. He saw his sudden obsolescence in the rise of blaxploitation, which traded refinement for roughness. His era as a leading man in prestige films was, essentially, over, though in the seventies he found a new career as a director. By the time Poitier released “This Life,” he and McDaniel were still a club of two, and he lamented that “the present situation is somewhat bleak.” In 1983, Louis Gossett, Jr., became the first Black winner for Best Supporting Actor, for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” and seven years later Denzel Washington won in the same category, for “Glory.” The nineties went by without any Black winners for Best Actor or Best Actress. By the time that Poitier released “The Measure of a Man,” in 2000, his thirty-six-year-old statuette was less an honor than an indictment. His author bio read, “Sidney Poitier was the first—and remains the only—African-American actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his outstanding performance in Lilies of the Field in 1963, but he believes that will soon change, given the excellence of African-American talent in the industry today.”
Two years later, Poitier, now a graying, seventy-five-year-old eminence, was invited back to receive an honorary Academy Award. “Here I am, this evening, at the end of a journey that in 1949 would have been considered almost impossible,” he said. Then he watched Halle Berry become the first Black woman to win Best Actress, for “Monster’s Ball,” and Washington become the second Black man to win Best Actor, for “Training Day,” after a thirty-eight-year gap. “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney,” Washington said in his speech, gazing up at Poitier in the balcony. Berry’s speech, in which she enthused that a door “has been opened,” was famously emotional, but, as the years passed without a successor, her statuette, too, took on a damning significance. In 2016, the year that the #OscarsSoWhite controversy exploded, Berry lamented that “knowing that another woman of color has not walked through that door is heartbreaking.” (She’s still waiting.)
In recent years, the Academy Awards have become a battleground in the fight for gender and racial representation in Hollywood, inspiring efforts toward more systematic change. The Academy launched a dramatic effort to diversify its membership, and released guidelines for inclusion on film staffs. Last year, it named the grand lobby of the new Academy Museum after Poitier. His image is almost certain to close out this year’s In Memoriam montage, deservedly so, as the Academy still basks in the gleam of his historic win. But his Oscar legacy is about more than “progress.” It’s also about solitude and the limits of symbolic victories. In the sixties, Poitier may have been Hollywood’s token, but the Oscar he got back was also a token—a shiny gold man trapped on a pedestal.