I grew up in two all-white communities, in both the North and South Hills of Pittsburgh. At the high school I would graduate from, we had one Black teacher and one Black student. I was always sympathetically cognizant of their presence. And I silently worried about how they might feel being outliers.
When I went to college the ratio improved somewhat. In my sophomore year, I took a film class, and one of the first films we studied was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which starred Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Houghton, and Isabel Sanford, who would go on to play Louise Jefferson in The Jeffersons.
I don’t think that there’s ever been a movie that affected me so deeply. I’ve seen it several times since, and yes, it’s dated, but the premise about a woman (Houghton) bringing home a Black man (Poitier) she is going to marry, and the parents’ (Hepburn and Tracy) frustration about the whole situation, was a timeless classic.
The movie was one of the first films to depict an interracial relationship; interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states only six months before the film was released. I’ve seen most of Poitier’s movies, but this one sticks out. Poitier’s performance was steady and earnest. He was in his late 30s, a widower, and a doctor. This was a rare depiction of a Black character on the big screen, as Black actors were more likely cast as maids or the help — like Sanford was in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
In fact, the very first Black actor to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel, who won Best Supporting Actress for playing a stereotypical Black maid in Gone With the Wind. That was in 1939. It wasn’t until 1963, 24 years later, when Poitier became the second Black actor to win an Oscar and the first in a leading role, for his star turn in Lilies of the Field.
Poitier was ostensibly the first Black actor to move away from formulaic roles as servants, comedians, and singers. In other words, Poitier was a serious and revered actor who refused to stoop to caricature.
Poitier’s death at 94 is a continuation of all the straight giants we’ve been losing during the last year who meant something to the LGBTQ+ community, i.e. Larry King, Olympia Dukakis, and most recently, Betty White. I wrote about these three when they died.
You might be asking yourself, why Poitier? First, he is the last surviving “golden age” actor. And for those of us of a certain age who still remember the classic films from decades ago, Poitier stands out as really the only Black actor who reached unparalleled heights during the 1950s and 1960s, in an era where Black actors in leading roles were simply nonexistent.
Poitier’s civil rights activism and filmography arguably set the stage for early gay cinema, since the LGBTQ+ community followed similar tropes. Poitier introduced and normalized Black life to largely white audiences, just as gay filmmakers and Broadway directors introduced and normalized gay life for largely straight audiences.
There was a confluence of Poitier and gayness with the Will Smith character in the hit film Six Degrees of Separation, which was based on a true story. Smith’s character, Paul, hoodwinked white people by portraying himself as a man of dignity, class, and exceptional tastes. He also falsely claimed to be the son of Sidney Poitier, which made him more acceptable, as a Black man, to a white, wealthy enclave of New Yorkers.
The Smith character, however, ended up being gay, which coupled with being Black made his presence unnerving to the white couple (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) who decided to take him in. The film, which was made in the mid-1990s, showed that racism and homophobia were still prevalent.
When I spoke recently to Black and out actor Colman Domingo, he specifically cited Poitier as a personal hero and a groundbreaker who paved the way for Domingo to not only succeed as a Black actor but also to be an out gay one. Domingo cited Poitier’s bravery and resilience, in the face of daunting racism, as an example of being your authentic self.
Poitier's effect on society in the 1960s was immeasurable, He almost single-handedly helped change the persistent bigotry that existed in this country for hundreds of years. Granted, we’ve seen it spring up after the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, but at his peak, Poitier made significant progress toward acceptance of people of color.
He built bridges and opened doors for all Black artists in succeeding decades. He also allowed other groups with scarred public perceptions to follow. It’s not a coincidence that gay characters began to appear on TV and film in the 1970s, soon after Poitier became a household name and was welcomed into homes via the characters he played in the 1960s.
Poitier was not just a person; he was an era. So much so that in 2015, the Los Angeles Times wrote that Hollywood at the time was in the “Sidney Poitier” phase of introducing trans representation in TV and film, with hit shows like Orange Is the New Black. He was a touchstone, and he made a difference that allowed others to follow.
The significance of Poitier on American culture cannot be overstated. His loss gives us an opportunity to look back at a time decades ago about our own misconceptions about Black people.
He was also a cultural icon as an activist, fighting for civil and human rights. And he was also a diplomat. In 1997 his country of birth, the Bahamas, made him its ambassador to Japan.
Poitier, as icing on the cake to all he accomplished, was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama. During the ceremony, Obama rightly pointed out, “It’s been said that Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones. … Poitier not only entertained but enlightened, shifting attitudes, broadening hearts, revealing the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together.”