At the height of the civil rights movement in 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first Black man to win an Oscar for best actor. The Hollywood moment did not just make history but intrinsically tied together two cultural institutions: the venerable Poitier and the Academy Awards.
For decades, Poitier’s momentous win would be the bar by which other Black actors measured themselves — and the rest of the culture measured the academy.
“Because it is a long journey to this moment I am naturally indebted to countless numbers of people,” Poitier said after being handed his award by Oscar-winning actress Anne Bancroft. After underscoring “the long journey” to the stage, the rest of his brief acceptance speech did not dwell on the win’s significance. He strode to the stage with the confidence of 10,000 men, gave a nod to the struggle, thanked his team and exited the stage. That was his way.
But the moment was steeped in history and he knew it. Poitier, who died Thursday at 94, was only the third Black actor to receive an Oscar, after Hattie McDaniel’s win for “Gone With the Wind” and James Baskett’s posthumous honorary award for Walt Disney’s “Song of the South.” (Both had played stereotypical Black caricatures.)
In his Oscar-winning role in “Lilies of the Field,” Poitier plays a “big strong” handyman who helps a group of White nuns build a chapel in Arizona. The film was released less than two months after the March on Washington in 1963 and race was not a major part of the plot. Poitier, who was criticised by some for the so-called colorblind roles he played, was clear about the legacy he was building.
“It’s a choice, a clear choice,” Poitier said in a 1967 interview with the New York Times. “If the fabric of the society were different, I would scream to high heaven to play villains and to deal with different images of Negro life that would be more dimensional. But I’ll be damned if I do that at this stage of the game.”
That same year, three of Poitier’s most iconic films were released — “To Sir, With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” In each, Poitier played dignified characters who dealt with racism both overt and covert with a resolve that was revolutionary without being militant. No one can forget his detective character’s response to a racial slur in “The Heat of the Night”: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”
But even as his critically acclaimed films entered the cinematic canon and the actor himself became an industry icon whose name became synonymous with sophistication and grace, he would not win another Oscar until 2002, nearly four decades after his first. The honorary Oscar bestowed “in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being” was presented to Poitier by Denzel Washington, who would also make history later that same night.
“Before Sidney, African American actors had to take supporting roles in major studio films that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country. But you couldn’t cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture,” Washington said.
Mirroring his original Oscar speech, Poitier spent time thanking the people behind the scenes (directors, producers, filmmakers) who helped make his career.
“I accept this award in memory of all the African American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years, on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go,” said Poitier, whose own shoulders undoubtedly did the same for another generation of Black performers.
Washington was one of them. He received an Oscar later that evening for his role as a corrupt detective in “Training Day” — the first time a Black man had won lead actor since Poitier, 39 years before. The role he played was one that Poitier may have himself turned down, but the seismic shift clearly marked some form of progress.
“Forty years I’ve been chasing Sidney, they finally give it to me, what’d they do? They give it to him the same night,” said Washington from the stage. “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.”
The historic nature of that Oscars broadcast did not end there. Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win an Academy Award for best actress for her role in “Monster’s Ball.” While Poitier looked on from his balcony seat, Berry made sure to underscore that the moment was much bigger than her. “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge,” said Berry, who’d won acclaim playing the Oscar-nominated film star (and one time Poitier co-star) in a television movie.
In the 20 years since that extraordinary awards night, just 12 other Black performers have won Academy Awards, with Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker joining the best actor club. No other Black women have won best actress.
The promise of that moment in 2002 — and Poitier’s time onstage in 1964 — still looms over the Oscars. Amid official academy programmes that push for more diversity and inclusion both on- and off-screen, the industry as a whole continues to grapple with how art and accolades mirror the world outside theatre doors in hopes that one day, wins like Poitier’s are among too many to count.