Film: Sidney Poitier made Oscar history 60 years ago

The Oscars are too white, black people are left behind in Hollywood, there is a lack of diversity. There is criticism of the Oscar Academy and efforts to increase diversity. Sidney Poitier was a pioneer in 1964.

Monday, April 13, 1964, was a historic day in Hollywood. Acting star Jack Lemmon, who took the stage as host at the 36th Academy Awards, announced Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, who would honor the best actor of the year.

The actress read out the names of the five nominees: Albert Finney (“Tom Jones”), Richard Harris (“Alluring Laurel”), Rex Harrison (“Cleopatra”), Paul Newman (“The Wildest in a Thousand”) and Sidney Poitier for ” Lilies of the field”. When Bancroft opens the envelope, you can see her joy. Beaming, she announces Poitier as the winner.

A short but epochal acceptance speech

At Santa Monica’s Civic Auditorium, the predominantly white audience erupts in loud applause. The then 37-year-old Poitier is the first black leading actor in the long history of the Academy Awards to win Hollywood’s top prize. Before him, only Hattie McDaniel had received an Oscar as a black woman in 1940 for her supporting role as a housekeeper in the melodrama “Gone with the Wind.”

Poitier uses the historical spotlight for a short but meaningful speech. It was “a long journey to this moment”. He continues that he is indebted to many people – and mentions, among others, “Lilies of the Field” director Ralph Nelson, his agent Martin Baum and “of course the members of the film academy.” He would like to say a “very special thank you” to everyone, he says, visibly touched and beaming from ear to ear.

As a little girl in a poor home, she experienced this moment as something very significant, said star presenter and actress Oprah Winfrey (“The Color Purple”, “The Butler”) when she accepted the Golden Globe Honorary Award for her life’s work in 2018 . The most elegant man she had ever seen came onto the stage. She remembers the white fly and the black skin. “Never before had I seen a black man celebrated like this,” Winfrey said.

It’s about tolerance and humanity

The historic award came right in the middle of the US civil rights movement, which rebelled against racism and also against stereotypes about African Americans. The inexpensively filmed comedy “Lilies of the Field” hit the right note at the time. In it, Poitier played the simple but morally superior migrant worker Homer Smith, who builds a church for arrogant white nuns in rural America. It is also about topics such as tolerance and humanity.

Poitier, a farmer’s son who grew up in poor conditions in the Bahamas, initially made a living in the USA as a street vendor, dishwasher and henchman. In New York he then joined the American Negro Theater and made his film debut in 1950 in “Hate is Blind” alongside Richard Widmark. He was nominated for an Oscar for the first time in 1959 for his leading role in “Escape in Chains”.

One of Poitier’s successes is that he was the first black person to kiss a white woman in a Hollywood film. The scene in the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was coyly shot through the rearview mirror of a taxi.

The charismatic star of films such as “Porgy and Bess”, “A Spot in the Sun” and “In the Heat of the Night” was one of the highest paid film actors at the end of the 1960s. After his Oscar success, Poitier was hailed as a trailblazer for black people in Hollywood, but the reality was different.

Very few black Oscar winners

It took almost 20 years before a black actor was back on the Oscar stage. The recently deceased Louis Gossett Jr. became the first black man to win a supporting role Oscar in 1983 for “An Officer and a Gentleman.” In 1990, Denzel Washington won best supporting actor for “Glory.” It wasn’t until 2002 that the Academy honored another leading actor: Washington impressed with his leading role as a corrupt police officer in “Training Day.”

At the same time, Halle Berry became the first African American to win the Oscar for best actress for her role in the drama “Monster’s Ball.” “Tonight opened a door,” Berry said through tears at the time. But since then there has not been another Oscar for a black leading actress.

With the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, the controversy surrounding the lack of diversity and recognition of black talent in Hollywood’s film business continued to flare up. When no blacks were nominated in the four coveted acting categories for the second year in a row in 2016, the Oscar Academy responded to the massive criticism and announced “historic measures.”

There are now standards for film productions that must meet certain diversity criteria in order to qualify for the Oscar competition. The film association has welcomed significantly more women and underrepresented ethnic groups as new members in order to bring about change.

In 2002, Poitier took the Oscar stage once again to rapturous applause. At the age of 75, he accepted an honorary trophy for his life’s work. At the age of 22, he came to Hollywood to begin a journey that seemed “almost impossible” at the time, Poitier said in his moving speech. He praised the “courageous and selfless” decisions of directors and producers who gave him roles and a chance despite his skin color.

The film icon died in January 2022 at the age of 94. The Oscar Academy published a photo from 1964 in which Poitier beamed and held his Oscar trophy. He broke down barriers and advanced dialogue in the USA through his art, the Academy wrote. “Few movie stars have had or will have the influence of Poitier, on screen and off.”


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