Embed from Getty Images
Halle Berry recently wrote a tribute to an icon and her role model, Sidney Poitier, that was published in Variety. Halle met Sidney while working on the 1999 film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Halle said that she has always felt connected to Sidney since seeing Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a child. She wrote that, despite being starstruck every time she saw Sidney, he was always gracious and dropped a few words of wisdom. Halle realized that Sidney reminded her of her father in many ways and that is what drew her to him. Below are a few more highlights from Variety:
Sidney’s impact on me did not end there. Over the years, I looked to him as a sterling example, as a template of manhood and all that is honorable. I was just 4 when my parents separated, when my father’s alcoholism upended our family. As imperfect as my dad was, as deep of a wedge as his fury drove between us, I loved him, missed him, longed to have him close. In my mind’s eye, and in my father’s absence, Sidney epitomized what a man should be: unflappable and courageous, eloquent and proud, charming and handsome. He even physically resembled my father. 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. 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.
Sidney selected his roles carefully. In a nation that routinely demonized Blacks both on-screen and off, and in a media landscape that showed little respect for our humanity, he knew he did not have the luxury of playing characters that would further denigrate us. “It’s a choice, a clear choice,” he once said in an interview. “If the fabric of the society were different, I would scream to high heaven to play villains and to deal with different images of Negro life that would be more dimensional. But I’ll be damned if I do that at this stage of the game.” For that stance, and as the civil rights movement took a more defiant turn in the late 1960s, he received criticism even from some in his own community. Yet I respected his choices. He intended to present our people with the same dignity he strode through the world with. He relied only on his own moral compass, on his own sense of how to best use his gift. “I did not go into the film business to be symbolized as someone else’s vision of me,” he once said. His artistic choices were his way of raising his voice.
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. 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.
Being the gentleman that he was, Sidney took the lead in our exchange until I regained my composure and managed to speak. With his warm manner, with the same grace he displayed on-screen across the decades, he put me at ease. He shared how he and Dorothy felt an instant kinship. He connected to her sense of honesty and vulnerability, said he viewed her as a fawn in need of protection. He also felt she’d been robbed of an Oscar for her lead role in “Carmen Jones.” “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. Sidney understood how often artists of color are overlooked, how our talent is so frequently discounted. He did not let that reality define him. At the end of our two-hour meeting, I left with my head held high and my chest poked out because he paid me the highest compliment. “I can’t imagine anyone other than you bringing my dear friend Dorothy to the screen,” he said. “You embody the essence of who she was.” It is a conversation I will forever treasure.
A few years later, my tongue got tied yet again when I saw Sidney at a gala. He was seated at my table alongside his wife Joanna. I glanced over at him and … Could. Not. Move. In an attempt to calm myself and restore my voice, I began talking with Joanna. Once I found my confidence, I told Sidney how much he meant to me. “You look like you could be one of mine,” he quipped, noting what he saw as my resemblance to his daughters. I realized then that, 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.
I understand Halle Berry being starstruck. If I had met Mr. Poitier I think I would have been too. I can tell that Sidney always looked back, grabbed the hand of many Black performers and brought them forward with him. I love how Sidney told Halle that she looked like one of his children. The fact that Sidney was willing to sit with Halle and tell her about Dorothy is a testament to his character. I also found Sidney’s come up story so fascinating. I did not know that Mr. Poitier was originally rejected from joining the American Negro Theatre in Harlem because his accent was too heavy. I am so happy that Sidney did not let that initial rejection drive his life.The fact that he changed his accent by mimicking American newscasters just stirred something within me. I am still amazed the Sidney directed over nine movies, including Stir Crazy, one of my favorites. I will always appreciate Sidney’s contribution to American film and the African American experience.
This was such a beautiful send off from Halle for an amazing man. Learning about her relationship with Sidney has helped with the pain of losing him. Even though I have never met Sidney Poitier, I must agree with Halle when she says that “he was nobility and class personified.” That came through in every role he played.