Sir Sidney Poitier, the pioneering actor who was the first Black man to win an Oscar, and whose riveting performance in the Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun became the model by which all serious Black actors, and indeed Black men, were measured for a generation, has died.

The trailblazing actor, director, author, diplomat, and proud father of six daughters was 94.

Tributes from the biggest stars of stage and silver screen dominated social media Friday soon after news of his death became public.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted a clip of Denzel Washington receiving a Best Actor Oscar award in 2011. Poitier received an honorary Oscar for his body of work the same night. 

“Forty years I’ve been chasing Sidney. They finally give it to me. What’d they do? They give it to him the same night,” Washington said jokingly, before hitting a serious note. “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.” 

In a 2015 profile titled, “How Sidney Poitier paved the way for Barack Obama,” The Guardian wrote that “with his cool, dignified eloquence, Sidney Poitier primed the white US imagination for its first black president.”

Writer Safraz Manzoor added the caveat: “But thanks to his roles in such films as [Guess] Who’s Coming to Dinner, he was also accused of being a white person’s fantasy of blackness.”

“He was smart-suited and clean-shaven, dignified and graceful, neither dangerously defiant nor offensively deferential,” Manzoor wrote, “masculine but strangely sexless.”

Poitier once wrote, “I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” according to his New York Times obituary

Mark Anthony Neal, a social critic and Duke professor of African and African American studies, told Duke Today that for much of Poitier’s career, he “carried a unique burden of representation in American film as a ‘credit to his race,’ and chose roles accordingly.”

A native of the Bahamas who was born in 1927 in Miami, where his parents were visiting, Poitier moved to New York when he was 17. He joined the Army in 1943 but was discharged two years later after feigning a mental disorder. He then worked odd jobs before reading in the Amsterdam News about a theatre audition with the American Negro Theater. He practiced English by listening to radio announcers and was taught reading by a dishwasher at the restaurant where he worked.

“His lucky break came when another actor at the theater, Harry Belafonte, did not show up for a rehearsal attended by a Broadway producer,” according to The New York Times obit. “Mr. Poitier took the stage instead and was given a part in an all-Black production of ‘Lysistrata’ in 1946. Although panned by the critics, it led to a job with the road production of ‘Anna Lucasta.’”

Poitier earned his first Academy Award for Best Actor for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field. Neal, the Duke professor, pointed to a scene in the film where Poitier “painstakingly teaches a group of German nuns the song ‘Amen.’”

“The affable Poitier is here the trusted racial interlocutor—a role he played regularly throughout his career. In that moment much of the world got to understand Poitier’s meaning for Black America, and particularly Black men, as a template for how they could ‘be in the world,’” Neal said.

Neal noted the iconic films To Sir with Love, The Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—all released in 1967—defined his early career.

But Neal also pointed to “the smaller films that spoke forcefully to the Black experience,” such as his work in For the Love of Ivy and the Western Buck and the Preacher, which was Poitier’s directorial debut. 

In 1974, Poitier was knighted by the Order of the British Empire, and in 2009, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the United States—by President Barack Obama.

“Though rarely outspoken about issues of race,” Neal added, “Poitier was of a generation of Black celebrities like [Harry] Belafonte, Nina Simone, Dick Gregory, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Sammy Davis Jr., who contributed financial support and their time to the civil rights movement.”

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