Sidney Poitier ‘Carried a Unique Burden of Representation,’ Professor Says

Mark Anthony Neal calls the actor a “trusted racial interlocutor"

Sidney Poitier is hugged by President Barak Obama at the White House.
Sidney Poitier is hugged by President Barak Obama at the White House after Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sidney Poitier, who was the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor, has died at age 94.

Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African & African American Studies, says the actor was a “trusted racial interlocutor” who provided a “template” for other Black men.

“There's a scene in the 1963 film ‘Lilies of the Field’ where Sidney Poitier, who earned his first Oscar for his performance and the first for a Black American, painstakingly teaches a group of German nuns the song ‘Amen,’” Neal says.

“The affable Poitier is here the trusted racial interlocutor – a role he played regularly throughout his career. In that moment much of the world got to understand Poitier’s meaning for Black America, and particularly Black men, as a template for how they could ‘be in the world.’”

Neal, who offers courses on black masculinity, popular culture and digital humanities, among others, added that Poitier for much of his career carried a “unique burden of representation in American film as a ‘credit to his race,’ and chose roles accordingly.”

“The array of films speak for themselves, like the iconic ‘To Sir with Love,’ ‘The Heat of the Night’ and ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ But there were also the smaller films that spoke forcefully to the Black experience as Poitier did opposite Abbey Lincoln in ‘For the Love of Ivy,’ the Western ‘Buck and the Preacher’ (Poitier’s directorial debut) with his longtime friend Harry Belafonte,” Neal says.

In addition, Neal notes that Portier contributions to films 1970s comedies including “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Let’s Do It Again,” which he also directed and were produced by the production company he founded with Paul Newman and Barbara Streisand to give artists greater creative control.

Poitier also played a significant part in the civil rights movement, Neal says.

“Though rarely outspoken about issues of race, Poitier was of a generation of Black celebrities like the Belafonte, Nina Simone, Dick Gregory, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Sammy Davis Jr., who contributed financial support and their time to the civil rights movement.”