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Why Sidney Poitier will be an important chapter for Hollywood

Thursday January 13, 2022, By Diversity Digest

Legendary actor Sidney Poitier, who passed away last week at the age of 94, was not just a colossus in acting but also a groundbreaking artist who paved the way for Black actors –a significant chapter in Hollywood. Pertinent for a time when the industry is still finding ways to be more inclusive.

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel became the first Afro-American to win the Academy Award for her performance in the evergreen classic ‘Gone With The Wind’, an onscreen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s book by the same name. However, it was not until two and half decades later that a trigger was around the corner. During the civil rights movement with the entry of Poitier, the industry finally took its intentional steps to bridge the racial divide.

Poitier, who won the Best Actor, Academy Awards, for his role in ‘The Lilies of The Field’ in 1964, became the first Black actor male to win the coveted award. From ‘To Sir, With Love’, ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’, and ‘In The Heat of the Night’, a swelling line-up of films made him the undisputed icon, a role model for Black actors.

His influence was significant because his movies mirrored the race conflicts in society. However, it wasn’t political messaging that won hearts. He established a deep connection with his audiences through the roles he essayed of personal triumphs.

The International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta, US, inducted Poitier for his mammoth contribution to the movement alongside Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou. Their site says, “With his unique career, Sidney Poitier helped change many stubborn racial attitudes that had persisted in this country for centuries. He has built bridges and opened the doors for countless artists in succeeding generations. He is an actor who stood for hope, for excellence, and who has given happiness to millions of people around the world.”

How he opened the doors is a question that has been answered and with many examples. Years later, when he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement in 2001, there was an array of black artists — Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, two of whom have won the Academy. And, there are the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, a trailblazer with her impactful works like The Color Purple.

But it is still a long haul—Hollywood’s diversity report has time and again acknowledged that they have not been inclusive enough. The Hollywood Diversity Report 2020 said, “Hollywood has apparently embraced this evidence and shifted the mix of top film releases in recent years toward more projects with diverse casts and leads. It’s as if the White men dominating Hollywood have opted to pursue a strategy of trying to appease the increasingly diverse market with more inclusion on the big screen, but without fundamentally altering the way they do business behind the camera. It’s as if they are reluctant to risk losing control by opening up the decision-making process to women and people of color who could contribute important insights about how to better meet the needs of diverse audiences. In the long run, this is not a strategy that bodes well for Hollywood’s bottom line.”

However, when inclusion finally happens in the future, it will be time to look back at the chapter called Sidney Poitier, acknowledging him for being the defining moment and a strong voice for their struggle.

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Diversity Digest
Diversity Digest
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