As one of the finest Black thespians to ever grace the silver screen, veteran actor, director and author Sidney Poitier has long cemented his place in the annals of film lore for his staggering list of achievements in the acting world. Long retired, the 85-year-old achieved one of the highest honors in his field 48 years ago today, becoming the first Black actor to win the coveted Academy Award (Oscar) For Best Actor in 1963.
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Lilies Of The Field was a film adaption of the novel of the same name by William Edmund Barrett. Poitier played Homer Smith, a handyman who encounters a group of nuns at an Arizona farm who are all of European descent. The lead nun, played by Austrian actress Lilia Skala, convinces Homer to fix an issue with their roof under the assumption of payment. When Homer runs into roadblocks from the mother superior in getting paid for his work, they both engage in a war of Bible verses. Although the pair bandy over payment, Homer eventually warms up to the nuns after learning of their hardship.
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The film continues its lessons of humility after Homer takes on a side job to help the nuns with food and other supplies on the farm where they make a meager living. The nuns believe that Homer was sent by God to help them erect a chapel on the farm for its surrounding Hispanic residents, as the nearest church was too far away. Homer’s side job is construction, and the lead contractor finds himself impressed with Homer’s ability to operate the equipment. At night, Homer helps the nuns with their English, and in the film, Poitier was able to show his singing abilities on screen as well.
The film’s feel-good ending culminates with the completion of the chapel, after Homer’s determination became a local legend. Although the nuns were denied help from philanthropists, the locals all pitched in, including the formerly resistant construction contractor, in completing the task. Poitier and Skala both own their roles as strong, bull-headed personalities but at the end, a mutual respect has grown between the pair.
Poitier’s Oscar win was also bolstered by him winning the Golden Globe that same year, jump-starting his career with the release of three popular box-office smashes with In The Heat Of The Night, To Sir, With Love, and the classic Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. This would not be Poitier’s lone Oscar award, after he received an honorary award in 2002 which recognized his achievements. Other awards include a Grammy in 2001 for Best Spoken World Album in The Measure Of A Man, an audio adaptation of his second biography of the same name.
Although Poitier hasn’t been in the theaters well over a decade, it would be difficult to ignore what his contributions meant for future African-American box office stars such as Eddie Murphy, Will Smith and Jamie Foxx among others. With his striking good looks and ease on the camera, Poitier paved a mighty path for many Black actors who would do well in studying his illustrious career.
Sidney Poitier, we celebrate you on this historic day.
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