The world lost a giant when Sir Sidney Poitier died on Jan. 6 at age 94. Poitier was the first of many: first Black man to win an Oscar, in 1964; first Black man to win an international film award, in 1957; first Black romantic lead in a major motion picture, with 1961’s “Paris Blues.”
He was the first to blaze the trail that would light up a path for other Black folks in Hollywood to be able to work in the industry and do it with dignity. His activism wasn’t solely in how he represented Black people but also in how he showed up continuously to fight during the civil rights movement.
“It’s been an enormous responsibility,” Poitier told Oprah Winfrey of his life’s achievements in a 2000 interview. “And I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. I had to. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.”
HuffPost asked several Black Hollywood stars to discuss the weight that Poitier’s legacy holds for them personally. From “Love Life” Season 2’s William Jackson Harper to acting veteran and current series regular on “The Equalizer” Lorraine Toussaint to newcomer and “Jingle Jangle” star Madalen Mills, the influence Poitier had on these power players is evidence that the power of his legacy will stay with us for generations to come. They are because of who he was.
Lorraine Toussaint (“The Equalizer”): From the moment Sidney arrived on the scene, the world knew there was something “different” about this man, something you couldn’t quite put your finger on. His legendary elegance, regal presence and measured cadence was a marvel to Americans both Black and white, and though we only met a handful of times and I dare not refer to him as a friend, I have always felt a quiet soulful kinship with him.
Like me at age 10, we landed on these distant shores with a naivety and an innocence that most people could not conceive of. Sidney recalls seeing an automobile and glass-paned windows for the first time. For me it was snow, and trains, and bars on the windows. With our thick Caribbean accents, navigating this new world was difficult. Two decades apart, we were displaced tropical birds avoiding capture in the ghettos of Miami and Brownsville.
Then something miraculous happened. We found acting. No, acting found us. For Sidney it came in the form of an “actors wanted” ad in The Amsterdam News, for me it was an ad in the Yellow Pages. In those early days, neither of us knew a thing about acting but possessed an iron will forged from our Caribbean upbringing that knew we could be, and do, whatever we set our minds to. With the help of angels and a generous sprinkling of divine intervention, we slipped behind the curtain and down the rabbit hole into a realm where all the adversity previously endured perfectly prepared us to be actors. Sidney once said, “All that I feel about life, I had to find a way in my work to be faithful to it, to be respectful of it.” That is a truism by which I have lived. Sidney Poitier was one of the greatest actors of our time as well as a fierce social activist, courageous visionary, compassionate ambassador, loving husband and father. He was a giant among men, on whose shoulders I now stand. I will forever hold dear the blessing of Sidney and Me.
William Jackson Harper (“Love Life,” “The Good Place”): Beyond breaking barriers, he’s one of the first people that showed me they could be broken. I took his presence in movies as a given when I was younger. It didn’t hit me until much later that he was doing this in the midst of open racial animosity. But it says something that I think about his artistry first and the context of when he was doing it second. You have to be some kind of genius to overshadow the bullshit of an entire society with your art.
Madalen Mills (“Jingle Jangle”): I was first introduced to Mr. Sidney Poitier when I watched “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry. The artistry and dedication to his craft in this film alone is groundbreaking and, to say the least, admirable. Mr. Poitier is truly a pioneer and has helped pave the way for many people of color to be able to dream and have opportunities in this industry. By breaking down barriers, he has opened the floodgates to help create a more inclusive version of Hollywood. Rest in Power, Mr. Poitier.
Mamoudou Athie (“Archive 81,” “Uncorked”): God rest his soul. Sidney Poitier exemplifies that spirit of dignity and grace. I think about all the actors who graduated even just a couple years before me who didn’t get even close to some of the opportunities that I’ve had. I was just thinking about what opportunities that have been availed to me that were completely closed doors to people in Sidney’s time. And I feel like I owe a great debt to all of them.
Brian Tyree Henry (“Atlanta”): The legacy of Sydney Poitier is one steeped in authenticity and strength. It’s one that actors and creatives like me are able to walk in because he created the original path. His determination and originality made it possible for me to dream of something bigger. To challenge norms. To have the courage to be more than what others limited me to. He will be remembered as a champion and a pillar of Black excellence. Thank you, Mr. Poitier, for your gift. I will honor you with everything I do.
Damson Idris (“Snowfall”): Sir Sidney Poitier is the reason I truly believed I could do this and be an actor. For many he was the first. It all started from him. He broke down barriers and opened doors for those that have come after him. For that he is a pillar. His talent, grace, humility and strength in the face of adversity will always motivate me. Rest in power.
Cassandra Freeman (“Bel-Air,” “The Last O.G.”): He is the quintessential leading man in Hollywood. He represents the best of what this craft of acting represents. Dignity. Power. Grace. Triumph. Transformation. Humility. There would be no Denzel or even Obama if not for him. He demonstrated what it meant to have great power and then use it in service for his country. He is an icon that will live on with greatness in everyone’s hearts and minds.
Tramell Tillman (“Severance,” “Godfather of Harlem”): When I think of Sidney Poitier’s legacy, I am in utter awe. His talent, grace, charisma, strength and character as an actor and human being are far beyond inspiration. He is a beacon for excellence, tenacity and community engagement. It was always a dream of mine to meet Mr. Poitier, even to work with him. I remember as a child watching his films, being transfixed by his energy on screen. As a boy I didn’t know why. I wasn’t sure what came over me, but now I know. I was witnessing greatness.
And who could forget his soul-stirring delivery of the iconic line from “In the Heat of the Night”: “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” That line reverberated throughout my childhood for years. While my dream of meeting Mr. Poitier in this lifetime will not come to fruition, I am honored and humbled to have encountered his brilliance. His legacy is a reminder of what is possible. It represents the indomitable spirit to achieve and shatter expectations. He embodied the belief that the only unshakable barriers set before us are ones we build on our own. I am grateful for his contributions to the industry and the world at large. He is, and will forever be, a true icon.