Sidney Poitier’s early life is nearly as remarkable as his award-winning career. Born in Miami, Florida, he lived in his family’s native Bahamas until moving to New York in the 1940s. Poitier was eager to join the American Negro Theater (ANT), although he was rejected after his initial audition. Unbowed, he resolved to lose his accent and hone his skills, and earned a spot with his second audition. His 1949 Broadway debut—as Polydorus in an all–African American production of Lysistrata—garnered favorable reviews despite the novice actor’s immense stage fright.
Later that same year Poitier headed to Hollywood, where he landed a part in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950), playing a young doctor who endures the bigotry of his patients while trying to save their lives. This pivotal role marked the beginning of the Sidney Poitier archetype—protagonists who face complicated issues like race relations and socioeconomic deprivations with a rare combination of vulnerability, anger, and dignity.
By 1964 Poitier was the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, for Lilies of the Field (1963), and three years later the incredible three-film run of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, To Sir, with Love, and In the Heat of the Night made him the biggest box-office draw of 1967. Over the subsequent decades this actor, director, author, diplomat, and humanitarian has earned innumerable awards and honors, including a knighthood and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We are thrilled to present this selection of highlights from Sidney Poitier’s unparalleled filmography.
Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.