Phyllis Kimber Wilcox | Black Voice News

Oscar winning actor Sidney Poitier, aged ninety four died in Los Angeles last week.. Known for his uncharacteristic portrayals of Black American life, Poitier was one of America’s first Black box office stars. The prime years of his career corresponded with a tumultuous time in American history lending Poitier’s characterizations substance and importance. He won an Oscar for his 1963 performance in the motion picture Lilies of the Field in which Poitier plays a handyman who helps a group of nuns build a church. 

The roles he took on as an actor are credited with helping change many longstanding,  stubborn and deeply rooted racial attitudes that had persisted even before America became a nation. His artistic excellence helped build bridges and opened the doors for countless actors in  succeeding generations. 

During his lifetime Poitier would receive many honors and accolades including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

Sidney Poitier (M) with former first lady of the US Michelle Obama (R) and former US President Barack Obama (L). Barack Obama/Twitter

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

However, Poitier’s characterizations we’re not without criticism, coming at a time when many were questioning everything, there were those who thought Poitier’s roles, as well as the man himself, too exacting and unrealistic. Leaving little room for a different kind of Blackness. Others had the opposite feeling, seeing in Poitier a dignity they wished to claim for themselves. Despite the criticism, Poitier was consistent in his support of the civil rights movement and provided needed financial support for Martin Luther King Jr.

Paying tribute to Sidney Poitier in 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “He is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.”

Potier will certainly be remembered for his acting and how the roles he played opened the door for a diverse representation of Black life in the movies and on television. He will also be remembered for his generous financial support of the Civil Rights movement during the heat of the struggle when there were very few Blacks like himself with the financial means to assist, as well as for his willingness to take a stand on behalf of his people regardless of the risk it posed to his career.