Sidney Poitier was an inspiration for generations that followed.
In the new issue of Variety, the Hollywood legend is remembered in a powerful tribute penned by Halle Berry.
“I grew up idolizing Sidney Poitier. I was around 9 when he flickered into my world on a television replay of ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ I was a latchkey kid in Cleveland, daughter of a white, single mother and a Black father — whose union their parents had frowned upon,” Berry recalls. “In the film, Sidney and his co-star, Katharine Houghton, play an interracial couple whose parents also struggle with their children’s relationship. There I sat in front of my mom’s old console, mesmerized, as I watched my family’s dynamic play out. For the first time in my childhood, I felt seen. Understood. Validated. The world already knew Sidney, who died last week at 94, as a formidable performer. But I first experienced him as a mirror.”
Berry, who is the first and only Black woman to have won the Oscar for Best Actress, also took inspiration from Poitier, who similarly was the first Black man to win the Best Actor Oscar.
“I wasn’t yet born in 1964 when Sidney became the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor for his role in ‘Lilies of the Field.’ But years later, when I witnessed the moment in a Black History class, I could not look away,” she writes. “Sidney’s grace and poise, the intention with which he spoke, the dignified way he carried himself — all of it resonated with me. Though I hadn’t met him, and did not dream that I ever would, I felt strongly connected to him.”
She adds, “His courage unleashed in me a sense that I, too, could stand in my power. I, too, could refuse to be diminished and perform the kinds of roles that I desired. On my own terms.”
Berry also remembers the first time she met Poitier, and how that moment affected her.
“Years after I admired Sidney from afar, I met my idol in person. I was at work on the 1999 HBO film ‘Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,’ the story of another trailblazer who made history when she was nominated for an Oscar. I’d arranged to interview him, to glean what I could about Sidney’s memories of Dorothy, as well as to hear what it was like to be Black in Hollywood during a time when there was little place for us in the industry,” she says. “I greeted Sidney, eyes dancing, cheeks lifted — and then I froze. It is the only time in my life when I have been rendered speechless! I was so overwhelmed by his powerful presence, his regal aura, I could not get my words out. For several minutes, I just sat there and stared at him.”
Poitier also shared words of wisdom with Berry that have stuck with her throughout her career.
“‘As Black people,’ he told me, ‘we must learn to swallow it bitter and spit it sweet’ — a phrase I’ve clenched tightly throughout my career,” she says. “Sidney understood how often artists of colour are overlooked, how our talent is so frequently discounted.”
She adds, “Whenever I’d see Sidney, my knees would weaken and my words would vanish. That is just how important he was in my world. He wasn’t just America’s first Black film hero. He was nobility and class personified.”
When Berry won her Oscar, Poitier was in the audience, and Berry remembers, “As I concluded my rambling speech I looked up and saw dear Sidney, high in the balcony seemingly with a halo surround- ing him, looking over me as a proud father would.”
Finally, Berry writes, “History will remember Sidney as a giant of the screen, a legendary actor and director, a performer whose enormous talents were eclipsed only by his kindness. I will recall him as my first mirror, and the true measure of a man — and I will forever see him as the angel in the balcony watching over all of us.”