Sidney Poitier, whose graceful demeanor and principled characters on screen made him Hollywood’s first movie star with African descent roots and the first African-American man to win an Oscar for best actor, has died. He was 94 years old.
Clint watson, press secretary to the prime minister of the Bahamas, confirmed to CNN that Poitier died Thursday night.
Poitier overcame an impoverished environment in the Bahamas and a strong island accent to rise to the top of his profession at a time when prominent roles for African-American actors were very rare.
He won Oscar for Lilies of the field from 1963, in which he played an itinerant worker helping a group of nuns to build a chapel.
Many of his best-known films explored racial tensions as Americans grapple with the social changes brought about by the civil rights movement.
Only in 1967, he appeared as a detective from Philadelphia fighting bigotry in the small town of Mississippi in In the Heat of the Night and a doctor who wins over the skeptical parents of his white fiancée in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
The movies of Poitier they struggled for distribution in the South, and their choice of roles was limited to what white-led studios would produce.
Racial taboos, for example, excluded him from most romantic parts. But his exemplary roles helped audiences in the 1950s and 1960s to envision African Americans not only as servants, but also as doctors, teachers, and detectives.
At the same time, as the only African-American leading man in 1960s Hollywood, he came under tremendous scrutiny. Too often he was hailed as a noble symbol of his race and endured criticism from some African Americans who said he had betrayed them by taking on sanitized roles and pandering to whites.
“It has been a huge responsibility”, Told him Poitier to Oprah Winfrey in 2000 .
“And I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. I had to do it. For others to come after me, there were certain things I had to do.”