"I'll always be chasing you, Sidney, I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir, nothing I would rather do."
—Denzel Washington, while accepting his Best Actor Oscar.
The Jackie Robinson of dramatic film acting in North America, born in 1927.
Before him, the notion of a Black man being a leading actor in dramatic American films was all but scoffed at, but this magnificent actor broke through the prejudice to make an invaluable precedent for minority actors, and paid the price for it along the way.
First hitting the big time in 1955 as a bright-but-troubled high school delinquent in the early Save Our Students drama Blackboard Jungle, Poitier soon became a special presence in classic films like The Defiant Ones and was the first Black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor for Lilies Of The Field in 1963. Unfortunately, Poitier was all too aware this was effectively an award for being the Token Minority in Hollywood, and he felt he had to set an example for playing characters that show African Americans in a good light to bury the Stepin Fetchit stereotypes.
As such, Poitier's roles typically embodied Positive Discrimination such as in his most famous films being an unrealistically perfect person, if deliberately desexualized, in every way. To be fair, he didn't help his case at the height of his career when he turned down the chance to start in a TV movie adaptation of Othello which could have at least been a real change of pace playing a very human tragic hero. The film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is the most blatant with Poitier's character being an successful doctor who is graceful, well mannered and deferential to his white fiancee's parents to ask their blessing before any thought of sex or marriage.
Before people really tired of this role formula and turned on him for being a token, Poitier enjoyed another breakthrough, being the #1 movie star of them all in 1967 with three hit films, To Sir With Love (another Save Our Students film, this time with Poitier as teacher), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, (a film so successful everywhere that it killed the marketing fear of how southern state film markets would react to films starring African Americans) and In the Heat of the Night (A Best Picture Oscar winner where Poitier at least got to play an Angry Black Man for a change as Det. Virgil Tibbs).
Afterward, his acting career declined, but he was able to be a successful director(Stir Crazy) and later Ambassador for The Bahamas as minority talents reaped the rewards of Poitier's trailblazing.
Tropes associated with him:
- In the Heat of the Night when a rich white bigot slapped Poitier's character, Det. Virgil Tibbs, for daring to question him on suspicion of murder. To the shock of white viewers and the delight of black ones, Tibbs instantly slaps the bigot back, an act that was previously unthinkable for African American characters in mainstream Hollywood films.
- They Call Me Mister Tibbs: From the same movie.