It is not easy to undermine Sidney Poitier’s place in the history of American cinema. He was the ultimate ceiling breaker, the first Black actor to break through the Caucasian stronghold.

But that doesn’t mean he was the onscreen equivalent of a reservation-quota topper. Poitier was a brilliant actor,bridled and implosive, bringing to his parts a rare empathy and depth, imparting to his characters the kind of unassuming wisdom that cannot be learnt in acting school.

Back during those days Black actors played Black actors in Hollywood…what else could they play?! If today Denzel Washington, Idris Alba, Will Smith and the late Chadwick Boseman are able to play colour-blind characters , they have only Poitier to thank for it. By playing protagonists who defied the apartheid in the American entertainment industry by bringing out racial issues in the open while playing mainstream professions like a school teacher(To Sir With Love) or a doctor(Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), Poitier laid open the doors for future generations of black actors who didn’t have to play slaves or delinquents to get noticed.

Sidney Poitier singlehandedly de-fringed the Black American Hollywood Hero. With his luminous performance in Lilies Of The Field(1963) Poitier became the first Black actor to win an Oscar in a leading role. If you go back to this film you can see how evolved Poitier was in his performing skills,never allowing the craft to eclipse the humanist core of the character.

My favourite Poitier performance is …no, not To Sir With Love, but Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner where Poitier was seen in an inter-racial marriage with Katherine Houghton. This was a time when inter-racial marriages were banned in many of the states in America. Poitier as Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s future son-in-law was restrained and understated. Always dignified never hysterical. Over-the-top acting was never his forte. Except for one memorable outburst in To Sir With Love I’ve never seen Poitier rant and rave on screen.

Long before Matthew McConaughey, Sidney Poitier was the honorary president of the cool school.His best-known film continues to be To Sir With Love,a 1967 breakthrough blockbuster where a Black hero for the first time captured the imagination of the entire American nation.White Americans saw and loved this film as much as the Blacks.Poitier in the unfaithful adaptation of E R Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel played a teacher in a school of mainstream-rejected students.

Many saw the film’s black-is-beautiful pitch as a sell-out. But Poitier knew what he was doing. He wanted to bridge the gap between ‘them’ and ‘us’, to rewrite the history of the Black American actor in Hollywood. He succeeded in this endeavour beyond belief, bringing the Black American into the mainstream cinema, showing the world what it meant to look beyond the colour of the skin.