Sidney Poitier, one of those who accelerated the history of humanity

For more than half a century, black actors only played the roles of slaves, clowns, butlers or boot shiners. They were just supporting actors, objects in fiction (as in reality) of segregation and mistreatment. A horizon of chains was the closest landscape. There was no place with expectations for them. White supremacy was guaranteed on Hollywood screens.

Until, in the 1960s, a man born in the Bahamas appeared, the son of a peasant who grew tomatoes. Who emigrated to the United States in the 1950s, studied and joined the American Negro Theater, with a stage in Harlem. There he got a role in a movie – he shot “A Ray of Light” where he played a doctor – and a decade later he would become the first African-American Oscar winner. A conquest won serenely, by the sole weight of his personality and his acting quality.

Already a legend, this figure – Sidney Poitier – died a few days ago at the age of 94 and his main asset is having mutated the image of men of color in the cinema. He was the first black star in Hollywood. And it seems fair to also note that he was part of a galaxy of world personalities who, to put it in the words of Georg Jellinek, “accelerated history”.

The blackness in the cinema was almost evaporated from Poitier. Behind him could appear Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington or Will Smith, among many others. Rules were sanctioned that set minimum quotas for the presence of men of color in the casts.

Similar phenomena were experienced in the prelude to that time, starting with Elvis Presley and The Beatles as promoters of a change in cultural vision. Everything was dynamic and rock was not just an acrobatics for the young. Rock jumped so much that it was able to save the height of the iron curtain and it was danced in Moscow. The Soviet cultural underground of the post-Nikita Khrushchev era stocked up on smuggled recordings arriving from Yugoslavia or Germany, with records by The Beatles, The Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple.

Rock was much more, as were the songs that came from Liverpool and found an echo behind all borders. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the flag against “apartheid” was already flying from prison – where he was held for almost thirty years in a gloomy cell – a pacifist revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, a follower of a different one, Mahatma Gandhi.

Going back to Poitier, it should be remembered here that he was imputed to a bonhomie in the style of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a kind of opportunistic resignation, but the truth is that he did not have a good time in his career. In the farewell note that Luis Pablo Beauregard wrote a few days ago in the newspaper El País, he offered a truly crude narration.

“Sidney Poitier and singer Harry Belafonte came close to being killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. This was the reason why he refused in 1966 to shoot “In the heat of the night” in natural settings in the southern United States, and the production moved to Illinois. In that film, one of the most memorable of his filmography, he played Virgil Tibbs, a black detective who must investigate a racist crime in the south, in the bastion of white supremacists. Finding no cotton plantation up north, the crew filmed for a few days in Tennessee: Poitier slept there with a gun under his pillow.”

He had been nominated for an Oscar as best actor for “Fugitives” in 1959, but the statuette came into his hands in 1964 with “Lilies of the Valley”. His speech was very brief, he smiled, thanked and left. But perhaps the film that hit the world the most, the most revolutionary, was “Guess who’s coming to dinner tonight,” in which he shared a starring role with two movie legends, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, whose plot touched on in depth the subject of interracial relations.

Beauregard cites Poitier himself who thus understood his contribution to cinema: “The type of blacks who appeared on the screen were always negative, buffoons, clowns, butlers, true outcasts. This was the context when I arrived 20 years ago and I chose not to be part of the stereotypes… I want people to feel when they leave the cinema that the lives of human beings are important. This is my only philosophy about the films I make,” he explained during an interview in 1967.


Poitier thus belonged to the new world, emerged from voices that were raised in different parts of the planet. The new world was made with these people and it was they who fertilized a tide of rights and intellectual conquests. As will be seen later, it was art, politics, and economic openness that laid the foundations for its takeoff.

Intellectuals and artists arose in our America who, perhaps without seeking each other, structured solid avant-garde movements. Thus, in our country, in the 1960s, artists owners of an unknown school appeared, sheltered by that area that was the Di Tella Institute led by Jorge Romero Brest. Among the main ones that remain of that generation today, Marta Minujín and Edgardo Giménez continue to create.

“After the Second World War, the economic growth of the United States and the reconstruction of Europe were reflected in a general economic activation, and in the opening of the economies, which created a fertile climate for creativity and also critical discourses towards that new order”, said Andrea Giunta, one of the most prestigious art researchers and curators in Argentina, in an interview with Infobae. Author of “Avant-garde, internationalism and politics” (Paidos), Giunta thoroughly studied that generation of artists.

In turn, in the literary field, an unprecedented phenomenon appeared, known as the “boom” of the Hispanic-American novel, with a directing quartet made up of Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, who were later numerous Peruvian, Argentine, Cuban, Chilean, Uruguayan novelists and all the countries of Central and South America joined.

Some illustrious precursors remained standing, such as Borges, Asturias or Bioy Casares, among others. And many followers of a remnant literature, almost colonial, fell into oblivion. The boom meant a modernization of the style and an update of the themes, that is, a change in the background and the form of American literature.

New topics to deal with, a greater exploration of the self and external circumstances, novel overlaps, redesign of literary structures, a surprising colloquiality, literature took a great leap in those years. A daring leap towards all readers, as never before. The results were not always good, but the truth is that -already overcome by the waters that continue to run under the bridges, already almost exhausted- the “boom” continues, however, to revive in many current texts.


What had actually happened, the main thing, was that the time chose to come out in defense of outcast minorities. In philosophical terms, this is expressly recognized in the controversy between Sartre and Camús, which was another reforming powerhouse.

But nothing at that time, not John Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, not the Copernican changes that John XXIII was accelerating in the Church, not the democratizing ferments that were being promoted under the surface of the Soviet Union, nothing was so representative of the anxiety for reform humanity like Mandela’s fight against racial segregation.

The writer Alberto Sánchez Piñol, founder of the Center d’Etudis Africans, maintains that “Mandela «is the great man of the 20th century, because when he entered prison he thought as much about freeing his own as he was about freeing his guards”.

A few days before Mandela died, Mario Vargas Llosa wrote; “Mandela is the best example we have -not one of the very few in our days- that politics is not just that dirty and mediocre chore that so many people believe, which serves the crooks to get rich and the lazy to survive without doing anything. , but an activity that can also improve life, replace fanaticism with tolerance, hate with solidarity, injustice with justice, selfishness with the common good, and that there are politicians, like the South African statesman, who leave their country, the world, much better than how they found it”. Long live then for the Mandelas and the Poitiers.

“Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte came close to being assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan”

“Mandela was the best example that politics is not just that dirty job”