Remembering Sir Sidney

Bahamian filmmakers and creatives are remembering Sir Sidney Poitier as an inspiration, an incredible talent, and an example of how to be an extraordinary human being.

Kareem J. Mortimer, who had the privilege to meet Poitier only once, said he was the ultimate icon to him and an inspiration who showed him, as a young Bahamian, that it was possible for him to work and thrive in the film industry.

“He inspired the world. I had the privilege to meet Sir Sidney once, when I was in Los Angeles, and it was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. His openness, charm, and generosity were astounding. And his willingness to give sound and helpful advice was a gift I’ll never forget,” said Mortimer of Best Yet Entertainment, Best Ever Film and Looking Deep – Podcast.

In addition to Poitier being an incredible talent, Mortimer said he was also an example of how to be an extraordinary human being.

Sir Sidney, the groundbreaking actor who transformed how Black people were portrayed on screen, and who became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best lead performance in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field”, died on Thursday, January 6, at his home in Los Angeles. He was 94.

Maria Govan described Poitier as “someone greater than even the celebrated actor he was”.

“He was not intimidated by barriers of economics and race. He did not come from privilege and that’s to be recognized. His was truly a hero’s journey.”

Govan, who likes to tell the story of her encounter with Poitier, did so for the second time to The Nassau Guardian in a year. The first time she told us of her encounter with Poitier was in January 2021 after Arizona State University (ASU) named its new film school, The Sir Sidney Poitier New American Film School, for his contribution to the world through his roles.

“One day, I was walking in Brooklyn… I was young and naïve and my film [‘Rain’, her first narrative film] was particularly challenging. I was down on myself. Out of the blue, I got a call with no caller ID. ‘May I speak with Maria Govan?’ He said, ‘It’s Sidney Poitier.’ I thought it was a prank. I didn’t know how to respond. He said, ‘Craig Woods [the film commissioner at the time] sent your film to me.’”

Poitier told her he had watched “Rain” and wanted to speak with her about it for a few minutes. Govan said they spoke for an hour.

As much as “Rain” is celebrated, as the filmmaker, Govan said she was hard on the film when it was released. They talked at length about all the ways she felt she could have done better.

Govan said Poitier left her with an important perspective: “As artists, we create a body of work – our life’s work…our voice, a tapestry we weave. This first film is but one piece of that great body and 

essentially the most important thing that such a film needs to accomplish to inspire the world to support you in making a second film, and ‘Rain’ certainly does that.

“I really needed to hear this,” said Govan. “He was incredibly kind and supportive.”

She said Poitier extended an invitation to her to visit his home for tea and more talk whenever she was in Los Angeles. She took him up on that offer. And that Poitier’s support was not unique to her but that such stories echo within her circle of peers.

“He lived an amazing, inspirational life, and I am deeply honored to have spent time with him talking about what it means to be an artist, a storyteller, a filmmaker… talking about our home, The Bahamas – the things we both love very much. What an incredible gift!”

Before Poitier, no Black actor had a sustained career as a lead performer, or could get a film produced based on his star power.

Before Poitier, few Black actors were permitted to break from the stereotypes of bug-eyed servants and grinning entertainers. Before Poitier, Hollywood filmmakers rarely even attempted to tell a Black person’s story.

Poitier’s rise mirrored profound changes in the country in the 1950s and 1960s as racial attitudes evolved during the civil rights era and segregation laws were challenged and fell.

He was the escaped Black convict who befriends a racist white prisoner (Tony Curtis) in “The Defiant Ones”. He was the courtly office worker who falls in love with a blind white girl in “A Patch of Blue”. He was the handyman in “Lilies of the Field” who builds a church for a group of nuns. In one of the great roles of stage and screen, he was the ambitious young father whose dreams clashed with those of other family members in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”.

Poitier peaked in 1967 with three of the year’s most notable movies: “To Sir, with Love,” in which he starred as a school teacher who wins over his unruly students at a London secondary school; “In the Heat of the Night,” as the determined police detective Virgil Tibbs; and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” as the prominent doctor who wishes to marry a young white woman he only recently met; her parents played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in their final film together.

Poitier’s films were usually about personal triumphs rather than broad political themes.

Charlie “Bahama” Smith of Earthbeat films said Poitier was a mentor to him for over 30 years. He said Poitier was someone he could call on a monthly basis and who would inquire about what he was working on, and push him to do better in his television and film career.

“In fact, one of the lessons I learned from him in film was not what to do – but instead – what not to do or accept for myself; and my choices. I would ask him continually how he turned down some of the roles he was given when he was hungry and needed the money in the early part of his career. How did he have the strength and the moral fiber to say no, when he needed the money? This was an important lesson he taught me.”

Smith said Poitier helped and gave advice.

“A little-known fact that Cleophas Adderley [deceased] told me, when I directed the ‘Celebrate’ music video for the Bahamas National Youth Choir, was that Sir Sidney Poitier gave the money to do a first-class production. [And] that the wanted no accolades for it, and was happy when it was done.”

Smith said he will always remember his talks with Sir Sidney and that people should be proud that a Bahamian is one of the world’s greatest actors.

Debates about diversity in Hollywood inevitably turn to the story of Poitier. He was, for years, not just the most popular Black movie star but the only one.

He has said he made films when the only other Black on the lot was the shoeshine boy.

Lavado Stubbs of Conchboy Films said Poitier was one of his biggest inspirations as a Bahamian filmmaker.

“Imagine this … a boy from Cat Island becoming the first Black man to win an Oscar. He showed me that I can take the word ‘impossible’ out of my vocabulary. He will always be the foundation for our growing film community in The Bahamas, and reassures us that we can have a seat on the world stage,” said Stubbs.

Poitier’s directing credits include the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder farce “Stir Crazy,” “Buck and the Preacher” (co-starring Poitier and Harry Belafonte) and the Bill Cosby comedies “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Let’s Do It Again”.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, he appeared in the feature films “Sneakers” and “The Jackal”, and several television movies, receiving an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination as future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Separate But Equal” and an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in “Mandela and De Klerk”.

Poitier received numerous honorary prizes, including a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute and a special Academy Award in 2002, on the same night that Black performers won both best acting awards: Denzel Washington for “Training Day” and Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball”.

Messages honoring and mourning Poitier have flooded social media since his passing; from the likes of former United States President Barack Obama and current United States President Joe Biden, to media mogul Oprah Winfrey, actors Belafonte, Washington, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle, Tyler Perry, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Keith Powell, to actresses Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, dancer and actress Debbie Allen, singer and actress Barbara Streisand, poet Amanda Gorman, Motown Founder Berry Gordy and musicians Questlove and Lenny Kravitz, the latter also of Bahamian descent.

Poitier was born prematurely in Miami where his parents had gone to deliver tomatoes from their farm on Cat Island. He spent his early years on Cat Island before being sent to live with his brother in Miami. He eventually moved to Harlem and found acting.