How Sidney Poitier Rewrote the Script for Black Actors in Hollywood

Smithsonian curators reflect on the legacy of the late Poitier, who starred in ‘In the Heat of the Night’ and ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’

An elderly Poitier wears a black suit, white shirt and black bowtie and stands in front of a gold and silver background
Sidney Poitier, pictured here in 2006 at the Cannes Film Festival, died Friday, January 7. He was 94.  Photo by Toni Anne Barson / WireImage / Getty Images

Actor and director Sidney Poitier, who broke racial barriers by portraying Black men with grace and depth during the Golden Age of Hollywood, died Friday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 94 years old.

The actor’s death was confirmed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Bahamas, where he grew up. No cause of death was provided, reports William Grimes for the New York Times.

Poitier broke new ground as a Black actor in pivotal films that explored interracial relationships, including roles as detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night (1967) and the doctor John Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). A skilled actor who made a name for himself playing dignified heroes, he thrilled audiences both on-stage and on-camera in the stage and film productions of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, about discriminatory real estate covenants in Chicago.

By portraying nuanced Black characters in movies, Poitier “really opened up the possibilities of who a Black actor could be,” says Dwandalyn Reece, curator of the performing arts at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

“He was tremendously powerful in reshaping the possibilities, in the public imagination, of who Black people are,” Reece adds.

In 1964, Poitier became the first Black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in Lilies of the Field (1963). By the peak of his career in the late 1960s, he was the top-earning movie star in the United States.

At a time when Hollywood was still segregated and studios offered few—if any—major roles to Black actors, Poitier’s success “changed the tenor and tint of Hollywood,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III wrote on Twitter.

Playbill featuring a black and white headshot of a young Poitier, in a polo shirt smiling and looking up
Playbill for A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Kayla Deigh Owens, Playbill used by permission. All rights reserved, Playbill Inc.

Poitier was the son of Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier, Bahamian tomato farmers who often traveled to Miami, Florida, to sell their produce. Born February 20, three weeks before his due date in 1927 during one of these trips, Poitier was an American citizen from birth.

One of seven children, he grew up on Cat Island and later near Nassau, where his father worked as a taxi cab driver. When Florida placed an embargo on tomatoes from the Bahamas, his family’s business suffered enough that 14-year-old Poitier was sent to live with his older brother Cyril in the United States.

Poitier moved to New York City the following year, where he taught himself English, per a 2012 documentary. He auditioned for the American Negro Theater in Harlem once but was rejected because his Bahamian accent was too strong. Determined, Poitier bought a radio, mimicking the English voices he heard from various programs; six months later, on his second audition, the acting troupe accepted him into the fold, reports the Times.

In the Heat of the Night (6/10) Movie CLIP - You're Gonna Stay Here (1967) HD

The young actor made the leap to the silver screen in the film noir No Way Out (1950), playing a Black doctor who treats two racist white men guilty of attempted robbery. But Poitier still supported himself as a dishwasher in New York City until scoring breakout roles in Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958), which catapulted him into the national spotlight.

He returned to the stage in 1959 as Walter Lee Younger, the father of a poor family living on Chicago’s South Side in A Raisin in the Sun. The play was the first written by a Black woman to be performed on Broadway and became a surprise hit from opening night: “After several curtain calls, the audience began to shout for the author, whereupon Mr. Poitier leaped down into the auditorium and dragged Miss Hansberry onto the stage,” reported Kenneth Tynan in the New Yorker at the time.

With greater fame also came greater responsibility, as Poitier navigated how to support the civil rights movement for racial justice while also forging a career within a flawed Hollywood system. “As the first broadly successful Black leading man in American film history, Poitier walked a tightrope” explains Ryan Lintelman, a curator of popular culture at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, in an email.

Poitier wears a black suit, white shirt and dark tie and sits in front of an excited group of young Black people, who all appear to be clamoring for his autograph
Poitier signs autographs in 1977.  Scurlock Studio Records / Archives Center / National Museum of American History / Smithsonian Institution

The actor challenged a host of negative stereotypes of Black men by projecting confidence, gravitas, sex appeal and bravery to American audiences, says Lintelman. But while studios continued to typecast Poitier as a faultless or noble hero, onlookers in the emergent Black Power movement of the 1970s and ‘80s disparaged the actor for “catering to white Hollywood,” that is, playing demure characters that were palatable to white audiences, says NMAAHC curator Reece.

For many, Poitier embodied the slow-and-steady integrationist approach to racial justice advocated by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Debates over Poitier’s roles in film reflected a tension within the civil rights movement writ large: “Everybody had a different opinion about what needed to be done… There’s no monolithic African American community view,” explains Reece.

For her part, Reece notes, she pushes back against criticism of Poitier by noting that “everyone exerts their power and their agency in different ways.”

“Poitier was part of the Hollywood system. Many, if not all, Black actors worked with what they had,” says Reece. “They tried to build characters from stereotypical outlines. … And that was part of the method of breaking through Hollywood. You had to start somewhere.”

In a candid 1967 interview with reporter Joan Barthel, Poitier himself responded to the notion that he was “playing the white Hollywood Establishment game.”

Poitier, center of a crowd of Black men marching, wears a jacket and dark sunglasses and stares you straight in the eye
Poitier supported the Poor People's Campaign for economic justice at Resurrection City, a makeshift town set up on the Washington, D.C. Mall in May of 1968. Photo by Chester Sheard / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

“If the fabric of the society were different, I would scream to high heaven to play villains and to deal with different images of Negro life that would be more dimensional,” said the actor in the interview. “But I’ll be damned if I do that at this stage of the game. Not when there is only one Negro actor working in films with any degree of consistency, when there are thousands of actors in films, you follow?”

In the 1980s, Poitier took a step back from acting and pivoted to directing. His credits including the smash hit comedy Stir Crazy (1980), about two unemployed friends framed for bank robbery, and Fast Forward (1985), which features a multiracial dance troupe from Ohio.

Former President Barack Obama bestowed Poitier with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. His long list of accolades also includes ten Golden Globes nominations and two additional nominations for Academy Awards. From 1997 to 2007, he served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan, traveling to the country three times a year.

Poster for a concert to aid sit-in movements and the Martin Luther King Defense, featuring Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters and Diahann Carroll
Poster for a concert to aid sit-in movements and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Defense, 1960 Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Poitier is survived by his first wife, dancer and model Juanita Hardy, who he married in 1951 and divorced in 1965; and actress Joanna Shimkus, who he married in 1976. He is also survived by five of his six daughters. Gina Poitier-Gouraige, Poitier’s child from his first marriage to Hardy, died in 2018 at the age of 57.

One of Poitier’s constant companions in the fight for civil rights was his contemporary actor and lifelong friend, Harry Belafonte. The two men met as 20-year-old actors in Harlem and would go on to support one another as they navigated an unforgiving entertainment industry. They frequently acted in films together and marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the deep South and on the March on Washington.

“For over 80 years, Sidney and I laughed, cried and made as much mischief as we could,” Belafonte said in a statement reported by Hillel Italie of the Associated Press.

“He was truly my brother and partner in trying to make this world a little better. He certainly made mine a whole lot better,” the 94-year-old adds.

Reflecting on Poitier’s artistic career, Reece points to his role in In the Heat of the Night (1967) as a particularly telling moment in his career. In the film, Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, an “uppity Northerner” homicide detective from Philadelphia who is falsely arrested for a murder in a small Mississippi town. Tibbs later stays on to investigate the case.

In the film, Poitier’s character “has a position of authority but is also subservient to white supremacist ideals,” notes Reece.

“He fully inhabits both sides of that personality, or those tensions, of being a Black person in America,” says Reece. It was a tension, she adds, no doubt also reflected in Poitier’s own life and career.

The actor’s delivery as Tibbs bears all the markings—grace, poise, a dignified bearing—typically associated with Poitier, Reece says. “But he also demonstrated this simmering anger and a demand for respect,” she adds. “The performance was loud and quiet at the same time.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.