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Sidney Poitier Was The Nelson Mandela Of Hollywood



sidney poitier

It is not easy to undermine  Sidney Poitier’s  place  in the  history  of  American cinema. He  was the  ultimate ceiling breaker, the  first Black actor to  break through the Caucasian stronghold.

But that doesn’t mean he was the  onscreen equivalent of  a reservation-quota  topper.  Poitier was  a brilliant actor,bridled and  implosive,  bringing to his parts a  rare empathy  and depth, imparting to his  characters  the  kind of  unassuming wisdom that  cannot be learnt in acting school.

Back during those days Black actors played  Black actors in Hollywood…what else  could they play?! If today Denzel Washington, Idris Alba, Will Smith  and the late  Chadwick Boseman are  able to play colour-blind characters , they  have only Poitier to thank  for it. By playing protagonists who  defied  the  apartheid in  the American entertainment industry by  bringing out racial  issues in the open while  playing  mainstream professions like  a  school teacher(To Sir With Love) or a doctor(Guess  Who’s Coming To Dinner), Poitier  laid open the  doors for future generations of  black actors  who didn’t have  to play slaves or  delinquents  to get noticed.

   Sidney Poitier  singlehandedly de-fringed  the  Black American Hollywood Hero. With  his luminous  performance in Lilies Of The  Field(1963)  Poitier became  the first  Black actor to win an Oscar in a leading role. If  you go back to this film you can see how  evolved  Poitier  was in his  performing skills,never allowing the craft to  eclipse the humanist core of  the character.

 My favourite  Poitier  performance is …no, not To Sir With Love, but  Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner where  Poitier was seen in  an  inter-racial  marriage with   Katherine  Houghton. This was  a time when inter-racial marriages were banned in  many of the  states in America. Poitier as  Katharine Hepburn and  Spencer Tracy’s  future son-in-law  was  restrained and understated. Always dignified  never  hysterical. Over-the-top  acting was never his  forte. Except for one  memorable  outburst  in  To Sir With Love I’ve never seen  Poitier  rant and rave on screen.

Long before  Matthew McConaughey, Sidney  Poitier was the honorary  president  of the cool school.His best-known film continues  to be  To Sir With  Love,a  1967 breakthrough  blockbuster where a  Black  hero for the  first time captured the  imagination of  the entire American nation.White Americans saw and  loved this  film as  much as the Blacks.Poitier in  the unfaithful adaptation  of   E R Braithwaite’s  autobiographical  novel played  a  teacher  in  a school of  mainstream-rejected students.

Many saw the film’s  black-is-beautiful pitch as a sell-out. But Poitier  knew what he  was  doing. He  wanted to  bridge the gap between  ‘them’ and ‘us’, to rewrite the  history of  the  Black American actor  in  Hollywood. He  succeeded in this endeavour beyond belief, bringing the Black American into the mainstream cinema, showing  the world  what it meant to look beyond the  colour of  the skin.

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