The trailblazing giant of film Sidney Poitier has passed away, according to the press secretary for the Prime Minister of the Bahamas. Poitier’s majestic bearing and skill for playing principled, defiant characters onscreen made him the first real Black movie star, leading projects like In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and Lilies of the Field, for which he became the first Black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor.
Raised in poverty in the Bahamas, Poitier would overcome enormous structural obstacles in Hollywood to become a leading man at a time when roles for Black actors were rare. He did not shy away from the tension, tackling racial issues in many of his films. His movies didn’t always get distributed in the American South and the era’s cultural taboos meant he was rarely offered a romantic role, but his success paved the way for future Black actors by widening American audience’s perspective. If early Hollywood movies featured Black performers at all, it was often as servants. But Poitier played detectives, lawyers and doctors, profoundly reshaping the entire industry.