‘Sir Sidney Poitier’

By Mumia Abu-Jamal 
January 28, 2022

The following is a lightly edited commentary.

For nearly a century, Sir Sidney Poitier lived and worked in the United States, an actor who consciously and intentionally sought, and refused, roles based upon the portrayal of Black people. If the roles were demeaning or offensive, he passed on them. If the roles were in line where the character could be played with dignity, he took them.

Born to parents from the Bahamas during a vacation in the U.S., Poitier, who spent years working on his father’s tomato farm on the island, came to the U.S., fell in love with the stage and experienced his first hard knock, when he was denied study at the American Negro Theater because of his heavy Bahamian accent. Poitier didn’t despair. He practiced speaking in a U.S. accent for months, reapplied and gained acceptance to the company.

Before long the stage became the screen, where he left an indelible mark. In 1951 he made “Cry, the Beloved Country,” a British-made film set in apartheid-era South Africa. In 1958 he co-starred in “The Defiant Ones” with Tony Curtis, portraying two prison escapees fighting to survive despite being shackled together.

In 1967 he played in a series of films which addressed the racist nature of the times — as a teacher in “To Sir, with Love”; as a police detective in “In the Heat of the Night”; and as part of an interracial marriage in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” at a time when such marriages were illegal in several dozen states.

Poitier won an Oscar for best actor for his performance in “Lilies of the Field,” 1964, a rare honor for a Black actor then and now. Poitier, in a 1967 interview, made the following observations: “I’ve learned that I must find positive outlets for anger, or it will destroy me. There was a certain anger; it reached such intensity that to express it fully would require almost idle rage, self-destructive, destroy-the-world rage, and its flame burns because the world is so unjust.” Sir Sidney Poitier.

In the ’90s, Poitier played Nelson Mandela in a made-for-TV movie. Mandela was in prison when it was screened in South Africa and said it gave him hope. Mandela also saw Poitier in “In the Heat of the Night,” but what he didn’t know until he left was that the South African censors had cut out a Poitier scene of slapping up who had struck him. Sir Sidney Poitier. He both starred in, along with Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee, and directed the western “Buck and the Preacher,” 1972, about ex-slaves fleeing the South to find freedom out west.

Poitier lived 94 summers as a man who turned rage into art. He was father to six daughters and husband to two wives — the last, retired actress Joanna Shimkus born in Canada. Sidney Poitier lived a life of love, not fear.

This is Mumia Abu-Jamal. Thank you.

These commentaries are recorded by Prison Radio.