Sidney Poitier, a trailblazer and Hollywood icon who paved the way for Black actors on the big screen in films such as A Raisin in the Sin and In the Heat of the Night, died at the age of 94 on Friday.
Though a cause of death was not revealed, his passing was confirmed by multiple government employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas, where the actor grew up. According to CNN, no other information was provided at this time.
Appearing in No Way Out in 1950, a Joseph Mankiewicz film about a Black doctor who struggles with treating his racist white patients, Sidney Poitier broke barriers and rose to prominence in the industry in tandem with the growing Civil Rights movement.
He went on to work on films such as Edge of the City, The Defiant Ones, A Patch of Blue, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Lilies of the Field, for which he became the first Black actor to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in Gone with the Wind, was already the first Black Actress to win Best Supporting Actress in 1940.
Sidney Poitier acted in many films of the ’60s dealing with integration and the social impact of interracial relationships, often playing characters with repressed anger, quiet indignation, and just resolve.
“The explanation for my career was that I was instrumental for those few filmmakers who had a social conscience,” Sidney Poitier stated.
“It’s a choice, a clear choice,” he said back in 1967. “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. But I’ll be damned if I do that at this stage of the game.”
He also tried his hand at directing, and in 1972 he released Buck and the Preacher, a highly influential Black Western that starred Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee.
In 2002, Sidney was given an honorary Academy Award in remembrance of his life’s work in powerful films, the same year that Denzel Washington became the first Black actor since Poitier’s role in Lilies in the Field to win Best Actor. In 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
Mourned and remembered on social media, celebrities offered their condolences and praised Sidney Poitier’s work, often an inspiration for many of their own careers in Hollywood.
“What a landmark actor. One of a kind. What a beautiful, gracious, warm, genuinely regal man,” said Westworld actor Jeffrey White. “RIP, Sir. With love.”
Whoopi Goldberg also commented with lyrics from his 1967 film To Sir, With Love.
“This is a big one,” wrote actress Viola Davis. “No words can describe how your work radically shifted my life. The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and sheer electricity you brought to your roles showed us that we, as Black folks, mattered!!!”
“You told us,“If your dreams do not scare you, they’re not big enough”! I put this quote on my daughter’s wall,” she continued. “Rest well Mr. Poitier. Thank you! Thank you for leaving a legacy.”
Towards the end of his life, he served as a board member for the Walt Disney Company, and spent time with his wife, Joanna Shimkus, and their six daughters, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“To wake up this morning to a call that Sidney Poitier has passed away… all I can tell you is that my heart broke in another place,” said actor and director Tyler Perry. “The grace and class that this man has shown throughout his entire life, the example he set for me, not only as a black man but as a human being will never be forgotten.”