1964: Sydney Poitier Becomes the First African American to Win the Oscar for a Leading Role

1964: Sydney Poitier Becomes the First African American to Win the Oscar for a Leading Role
Photo Credit To Wikipedia Commons/ Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Actors Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Charlton Heston (1963)

Story Highlights

  • Historical event:
  • 13 April 1964
  • In April 1964, at the 36th Academy Awards, Sydney Poitier became the first African American to win the Oscar for Best Actor, for his leading role in the movie Lilies of the Field (1963). What is even more surprising is that he remained the only African American to win this award until 2002, when it was also won by Denzel Washington for his leading role in the movie Training Day (2001) and Halle Berry for her performance in Monster's Ball (2001).

Early Life and Childhood

Sydney Poitier was born on 20 February 1927 in Miami, Florida during his parents’ short visit to the city. Originally, he was a native of the Cat Island, the Bahamas, where he grew up in  poverty as the son of a tomato farmer. He left school at the age of thirteen and returned to Miami where he lived with his older brother. After some time he moved to New York City, where he enlisted into the U.S. Army, serving as medical assistant during World War II.
His first attempt at acting was a complete failure. He first auditioned for the American Negro Theater in New York, but was rejected due to his ‘funny’ accent and poor reading skills. However, this did not discourage him, as he spent the next six months practicing his pronunciation and elocution skills. He first worked at the Theater as a janitor, in exchange for acting lessons. His persistence and determination to become an actor proved worthwhile. His second audition for the American Negro Theater was a success. It was this event that marked the beginning of his career and his entry into film history.

Acting Carrier

At first Poitier worked as an understudy for Harry Belafonte in a play called Days of Our Youth, learning performer’s lines in case they should forget them. However in 1946, during one rehearsal, he was spotted by a director and was given an opportunity to play a small part in the all-black Broadway production of Lysistrata. Even though his performance was not the best and his nervousness was obvious, especially when he delivered the wrong lines and left the stage, he nevertheless made an impression upon the critics. Despite everything, his debut on Broadway proved a success, and was soon being offered with more work.
Four years later, in 1950, Sydney Poitier made his first film debut. This was in a movie No Way Out, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. In it, Poitier played the role of Dr. Luther Brooks, who was assigned to treat two white brothers, Ray and John Biddle, who were shot during their attempt to rob a gas station. Ray, a fervent racist, declines to be treated by a black doctor. When his brother dies while Luther was trying to save him, Ray is convinced that this was an act of murder. Thus he begins to plan vengeance. Soon, more roles followed, and Poitier played in the drama Cry, the Beloved Country, based on the novel written by South African author Alan Paton. This led to further roles and more acting. Poitier was assigned more interesting and more prominent roles than other African American actors. However, these roles were still less prominent than those assigned to white actors. This led to him declining several roles he was offered.
His breakthrough came in 1955 with the movie Blackboard Jungle. This was a movie about a war veteran, Rick Dadier, played by Glenn Ford, who is hired by the North Manual High School, an unruly, inner city school. Poitier was given a role of a black student, Gregory W. Miller. With its rock and roll soundtrack and its detailed depiction of relations and hardships at the inner city school, the movie became a sensation and thus introduced Poitier to wider audience. This also marked the beginning of Poitier as the first African American actor who was being assigned the leading roles in films, a feat rarely if ever achieved by the African American actors until then.
The acknowledgment of his talent came in 1958, when he was given a lead role, together with Tony Curtis, in Stanley Kramer’s drama The Defiant Ones. The movie follows the two convicts, John ‘Joker’ Jackson, played by Tony Curtis, and Noah Cullen, played by Sydney Poitier, in their attempt to escape the prison after a prison truck accident. Although the two cannot stand each other, they are forced to cooperate due to the fact that they are chained together. By the time they manage to release the chains their prior hostility has turned into friendship and respect. It was with this movie that Poitier earned his first Academy Award nomination, thus increasing his popularity. Only a year later he appeared in a musical Porgy and Bess, and his role in the 1961 movie A Raisin in the Sun established him as the number one African American actor.

Academy Award

In 1963 Poitier was given a leading role in Ralph Nelson’s movie Lilies of the Field. The movie was based on the novel written by William Edmund Barrett. In it Poitier played a role of an unemployed construction worker, Homer Smith, who by accident finds himself on a remote farm in a desert after his car breaks down. The farm is run by nuns, who escaped from the Communist-held part of Berlin and came to the United States. They are headed by Mother Maria, who believes that Homer was sent by God in order to build a church in the desert. The movie soon proved to be an enormous success and Sydney Poitier was nominated in the Best Actor category at the 36th Academy Awards. When he won the Award, he became the first African American in history to have won the Best Actor Award. African American actors did win Oscars prior to Poitier, however. This was achieved by Hattie McDaniel for a supporting role in Gone with the Wind,  where she played the role of Mammy, the slave governess of Scarlet O’Hara. However, Poitier was the first African American to receive a award for the leading role ,and for the one which fell outside the traditional stereotypes of African Americans acting as servants or victims.
The Award was presented to him in 1964 at the 36th Academy Award ceremony. He was presented with the Oscar statuette by the actress Ann Bancroft, who while congratulating him kissed him on the cheek, thus causing a mild scandal and disapproval among the more conservative audience.

Later carrier

After wining the award, Poitier continue to play prominent roles in many movies, and especially in those where he was able to further promote Civil Rights. He played in movies such as To Sir, With Love (1967), where he played an engineer who teaches at the East End school, In the Heat of the Night (1967), where he played the role of an African American detective from the North who is asked to investigate a racially motivated murder in the South, and one of his most successful movies of that time, the comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). In this last movie he played the role of Dr. John Prentice. He co-starred with Katharine Houghton, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn. This was the first movies which depicted the problems of inter-racial relationships on the screen. It was also the first movie where an interracial kiss, that between Sydney Poitier and Katharine Houghton, was shared on-screen. The above movies were all seen as landmarks in breaking the social barriers between the African and White Americans which existed at the time.
In 1969 Poitier founded the First Artists Production Company, and in 1972 he directed his first movie Buck and the Preacher. He also played a leading role in the movie together with his friend Harry Belafonte. He teamed up with Bill Cosby and Belafonte in the 1974 movie Uptown Saturday Night, which was soon followed by two more comedies, namely, the 1975 Let’s Do it Again and the 1977 A Piece of the Action. After being absent for almost a decade from the big screen, he returned in 1988 in a pair of dramas, namely, Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita. He also starred in TV series, of which the 1997 Mandela and de Klerk was the most notable. The storyline follows the last years of Mandela’s imprisonment and his election as the leader of South Africa.
In 2001 he was presented with the NAACP’s (national Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Hall of Fame Award, and in 2002 he was awarded with an honorary Academy Award for his career. In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. He also holds the title of ‘Sir’ which was granted to him in 1974, when he was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire. He also served as a Bahamian non-resident ambassador to Japan, and worked at UNESCO.

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