Sidney Poitier — who turns 94 on Feb. 20 — has received virtually every showbiz award possible: An Oscar, Grammy, Golden Globe, plus Life Achievement Awards from AFI, BAFTA, NAACP Image Awards, SAG and Kennedy Center Honors, to name a few. Though the kudos have been plentiful, they aren’t enough to convey the depth of his lasting impact on the entertainment industry, starting with being the first Black winner of best actor Oscar for the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field.”
The film industry’s lack of diversity is still an issue in the 21st century. But diversity was nearly non-existent when Poitier made his film debut in the 1950 “No Way Out.” There had been other Black actors in lead film roles, including James Edwards and Harry Belafonte, but they were extremely rare. And Poitier captured the public imagination like no one before him, with his soft but powerful voice (with that slight, unidentifiable accent from the Bahamas) and, crucially, his integrity.
By 1965, two years after “Lilies of the Field,” he was such an established star that a Variety story carried the banner, “It’s Poitier or It’s Nothing,” saying that the studios were avoiding racial-themed films unless the actor starred in them. He was opening doors, but it wasn’t immediate and it wasn’t pervasive.