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Outside of his acting career he was a dedicated civil rights and independence activist. Serving as Bahamian ambassador to Japan and UNESCO, and being a vocal advocate for human rights, he used his status to serve his community, with Martin Luther King jr. saying of him; “he is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.”
While many of the characters he played were often criticised as representing “too good to be true” idealisations of the palatable black man, his roles in the likes of In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner saw him in parts with more depth and gravitas than had previously been given to black actors. Seeing him slap a white man and not die by the end of the film was a powerful thing for many black people to see in a big Hollywood movie. It’s true that much of what we saw of Poitier was a quiet caricature of the ideal black American, an image put upon him by the industry limitations of tokenism and stereotyping, but he had agency, was smart, and expanded black representation in cinema significantly.
“Before Sidney, African American actors had to take supporting roles in major studio films that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country. But you couldn’t cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture”… “He was the reason a movie got made: the first solo above-the-title African American movie star” (Denzel Washington).