For a few months, in 1967, the year of In the heat of the Night and of Guess who’s coming to dinner ?, Sidney Poitier, who died Thursday January 6 at the age of 94 in Los Angeles, was the first of the Hollywood actors. The one who moved the most spectators, the best paid of all the stars.
A year before Martin Luther King’s assassination, a black actor ruled the box office. This triumph was a trompe-l’oeil, an ephemeral victory whose fruits had to be waited for decades. In a country which had barely recognized the right to vote of one of its most numerous minorities – the African-Americans of the States of the South – the place occupied by Sidney Poitier in the collective imagination was immense, proportional to his talent, but also narrowly limited by the conservatism of a film industry more concerned with protecting itself from southern boycotts than with representing spectators from working-class neighborhoods in large cities.
This paradox which opposes the vitality and creativity of a great artist to stifling conventions shaped the career of a farmer’s son from the Bahamas, who arrived as a teenager, almost illiterate in the United States, and became fifteen years later a sex- symbol who was not allowed to kiss his white partners on the screen, a star who in each film, to Seed of violence, in 1955, at Guess who’s coming to dinner … was to embody the aspirations of his community as defined by white writers and directors. That this pressure did not prevent Sidney Poitier from asserting not only his quality of interpreter, but also to become, in the years 1970, one of the first black producers and directors to work inside the system of the studios. give the measure of the man he was.
Sidney Poitier grew up in a family of farmers probably of Haitian origin, on Cat Island, in the archipelago of the Bahamas, then a British colony. By a coincidence that was to prove decisive, his parents used to sell their vegetables in the Miami market in Florida, and it is there that the young Sidney was born prematurely, on February 20, 1927, thus acquiring American nationality.
In the early 1930s, the Poitier family was driven from their land by the Great Depression and settled in Nassau, the capital of the archipelago. Sidney Poitier cultivates bad relations there and collects bad moves, to the point that his parents decide to send him to an older brother, established in Miami where the boy arrives in January 1943. There he discovers the segregationist laws in force in Florida, the prohibition of access to public gardens or businesses run by whites, the permanent threat of police harassment – Poitier was driven out of a white district under the threat of the weapon of a representative of the law -, measures and practices unknown in the Bahamas. It only took a few months for the teenager to decide to leave the South for New York.
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Sidney Poitier, the first black comedian to receive the Oscar for best actor, in 1964, is dead