By the time I was old enough to pay attention, Sidney Poitier was already an icon, one of the few figures in entertainment genuinely deserving of that term. The major career-capping laurels — the lifetime achievement Oscar, the Kennedy Center Honor, the Congressional Medal of Freedom — were still to come, but it was already understood that Poitier was a Very Important figure. The first Black man to win an Academy Award for a leading role, in the thirty-sixth annual ceremony for dispensing the trophies, Poitier was also a inarguable movie star. He had starring roles in three of the top fifteen highest grossing films of 1967 and could get pictures made by agreeing to topline them. Like Barack Obama later, Poitier was regularly held up as proof by bigotry denialists as proof that racial inequity wasn’t a real problem, as if the term “exception that proves the rule” had never been coined, as if his biggest hits weren’t subject to regular censorship driven by fear and prejudice. He was part of the cultural conversation in a way that, for me, obscured a simple truth: He was an exceptional actor.
For a long time — too long — I knew Poitier’s finest work only through clip packages, and those assemblages of highlights always defaulted to the same few culture-jostling moments: straining in an attempt to haul Tony Curtis onto a moving train, a tender kiss, stalwart graciousness before a flustered Katharine Hepburn, a returned slap, and a resounding proclamation of the manner of personal address he is accustomed to. These might be fine screen moments, genuinely memorable in the context of their films. Taken apart, they’re also resolute statements, conveying social commentary more than drama. Reviewing the peak of his career in retrospect too often felt like examining a commemorative statue erected to honor groundbreaking cultural achievement. Being a first can sometimes disguise greatness. Poitier knew that in the moment, firmly and correctly challenging the press for reducing him to a spokesperson for his race when he was a full, accomplished artist.
When I finally watched Poitier’s acting, really watched it, I was startled by the totality of it. He had range and command. He carried an almost superhuman magnetism that rivaled that of his contemporaries Marlon Brandon and Paul Newman, the latter once a costar with Poitier. Maybe most surprising to me, he had a rascally energy on screen, a spirited inventiveness that made beats, scenes, entire movies crackle with the energy of life. It’s said often that his trailblazing helped transform cinema (that it took nearly four decades before another Black man grasped the Academy Award for Best Actor in competitive victory argues against that summation), but I’d argue that what he did was more thrilling: He operated profoundly and powerfully within the confines of film acting, demonstrating enviable mastery of the form that relied not one whit on that pioneer status. To use his own assessment, delivered in 1968, Poitier was artist, man, American, contemporary, an awful lot of things. I’m glad I got to witness, as best I could from a distance, the whole of him.