Sunday, April 12, 2009

An historic Oscar

Forty-five years ago, on April 13th, 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first Black performer to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, for his portrayal of Homer Smith in 'Lilies Of The Field'. (James Baskett received an honorary Academy Award before him, in 1948, for his role as Uncle Remus in Disney's 'Song Of The South', but that was a non-competitive award, and not awarded in a 'standard' Oscar category.) The only Black person to win a 'standard' Oscar before him was Hattie McDaniel, who won the Best Supporting Actress award in 1939 for her role as Mammy in 'Gone With The Wind'.

The anniversary has a particularly poignant meaning for me. I lived in South Africa during the deadly years of 1976-1994, during which untold thousands of people died in rolling civil unrest until the racist policies of apartheid were finally laid to rest. Sidney Poitier was an example to many Black people. I used to show 'Lilies Of The Field' and 'In The Heat Of The Night' to Black youth groups, and speak of Sidney Poitier's struggle for recognition as an actor, culminating in this Academy Award. They could identify with him, and his gracious, gentlemanly style was a wonderful example to them in the midst of the tension, violence and bloodshed all around them.

I remain very fond of 'Lilies Of The Field'. It's one of the few movies that can be described as genuinely charming, warm-hearted and uplifting. If you've never watched it before, may I recommend that you get a copy on DVD or VHS, and spend an evening enjoying it? I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Here's footage of Sidney Poitier accepting his Academy Award.

Mr. Poitier is now 82 years old, and still going strong. Since 1997 he's been the ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan.


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