BURLEY: The struggles of an African-American actor

Poitier in “A Patch of Blue”. Courtesy photo

Joshua Burley is a junior mass communication major from Corinth, Texas.

Sidney Poitier was a famous Bahamian American actor and director from the 1950s to the 2000s. He was born the youngest out of seven children prematurely on Feb. 20, 1927 in Miami, Fla. during his parents, Reginald and Evelyn Poitier, visit to the United States. 


Poitier spent most of his childhood in Cat Island, Bahamas. Poitier soon moved to Nassau where some say he first fell in love with the art of movies. By the age of 15 he moved to New York City. During this time period in his life, he witnessed his first racial encounter where white Americans judged him because of his thick accent. Coming from a country where African Bahamians were the majority he was not familiar with that kind of treatment.


Poitier enlisted into the United States Army during World War II. After the war, he applied for the American Negro Theatre in New York City. Due to his native accent he was declined enrollment, but he did not allow that to stop him. Poitier started practicing enunciation listening to the accents of radio voices. Several months later he reapplied to the school and was accepted. 


A few years later he landed in his very first show called Lysistrata on Broadway. In the years to follow he starred in several shows such as Cry, the Beloved Country in 1951, The Blackboard Jungle in 1954. His well known role is Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1959 and John Prentice in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Because this later movie came out during the Civil Rights era, it was considered as the most controversial movie of all time. The movie was about a white woman introducing her black finance to her parents.  Christina Drayton, played by Katharine Hepburn, is completely love struck by her new man and is super excited to introduce him to her parents. As for John, he feels the same way but fears the way her parents might view him. The film was the first to introduce an interracial couple in Hollywood.  When the film came out in 1967 many White Americans were enraged.


Many years later the remaining cast of the film was reunited for an interview where they shared the struggled they all had to endure during the making of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.  


Anyone that had anything to do with the making of this film such as the cast and the crew were all received death threats. Amidst the storm, Poitier and the rest of the cast and crew at the time pressed on. 


Poitier went on to direct “Buck and the Preacher” where he co-starred as the preacher. He then went on to play in films such as Warm December in 1973. In the following year, Poitier received knighthood in his home country, but he preferred not to go by the title of Sir Sidney Poitier. Poitier also starred in “Shoot to Kill” in 1988, “Separate but Equal” in 1991, and “Mandela and de Klerk” in 1997 where he portrays both Nelson Mandela and Thurgood Marshall.  Poitier’s final film was “The Last Brickmaker in America” in 2001 where he portrays Henry Cobb.  


In 2009 Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President Barack Obama and is very much alive and well today. Poitier was one out of many classic black actors who paved the way for many others to follow. His story is a reminder to never let anyone or anything stand in the way of achieving your dreams life. 


May his life be a reminder to never let fear hinder your progression and always keep climbing until you reach the climax of preeminence.