By LaKeshia N. Myers
I remember the first time I saw Sir Sidney Poitier act in a movie. I was about 7 years old and I walked into our family room where my parents sat watching the movie, “To Sir, With Love.” I thought the movie was funny at first, because of the actors’ British accents, but I was quickly drawn to Poitier’s personification of his role as a teacher. This was important because my parents are both educators, and I saw a bit of my dad in Poitier’s character, Mark Thackery. By the end of the movie, I was fully in awe of the masterful Poitier.
As I moved into middle school, I became enamored with classic films. Turner Classic Movies was the perfect place to get my fix of old school cinema. There I would discover the extent of Poitier’s robust catalog of iconic roles. I watched everything he had ever played in— “Lillies of the Field,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!”, “A Piece of the Action” and more. It was an eye-opening experience of cinema, each film was different and he brought what was needed to enrich each character. Upon his death last week, I saw an interview Poitier gave where he talked about his decision early on to only to play characters who were professionals. While some at the time called his decision, “unrealistic” and labeled him an “Uncle Tom”—he is lauded for that commitment today, because he showed that African Americans are not a monolith, and that we exist in all professions and operate in every economic station. How necessary and bold this had to be in 1950s America! I assuage it is even more necessary today.
Poitier paved the way for today’s leading men including Denzel Washington, Mahershala Ali, Idris Elba, Morris Chestnut, Samuel L. Jackson and Will Smith. It is because of his sacrifices that Black men are no longer boxed in in Hollywood. Poitier was a game changer; a luminary; an icon; and most definitely a legend. I am thankful that we are left with his canon of work for future generations. We loved you, Sidney. Thanks for everything.