When I was in my late 30s, someone came up to me in the street and started talking to me as if I were Sidney Poitier. To the extent that they called me “Sidney”. I said: “I’m sorry – my name is Don.” And they looked at me and said: “Oh Sidney, when did you change your name?” They simply would not accept I was somebody else.
Even if you didn’t model yourself after Poitier, other people would. He was just the go-to reference. I’ve yet to meet a Black actor who hasn’t been compared to him – which is both irritating and enjoyable. And says more about the one making the comparison.
Yet when I was a little boy growing up in Newcastle, I was of course inspired by him. Poitier meant everything because he was the only light at the end of the tunnel. He was there and doing it and visible and Black. No one else was – or, at least, almost no one. And at that age one somehow needed inspiration from an almost untouchable source.
Poitier had done it. And he’d done it with dignity and panache and grace. There wasn’t a moment in anything I ever saw him do on film which made me feel ashamed, which was remarkable. I remember watching The Defiant Ones and In the Heat of the Night and Lilies of the Field and I was so proud of him. There was no sense of this being a Black man doing something – it was just a man. He somehow allowed people into him, beyond his colour.
I think the other reason he especially connected with me is that we both came from the Caribbean [Poitier from the Bahamas; Warrington from Trinidad]. I could relate to him coming from a sister island and so his course felt like one I might be able to chart too. Other people simply seemed out of reach.
I think this heritage was also crucial in his cut through with both white and Black audiences in the US. Being outside the system meant he didn’t have that oppressive history Americans do. There was a kind of breathing space. Maybe it allowed him to be more himself at a time when to be Black and in America and trying to do what he was doing was very, very hard.
That awful legacy still weighs heavily. It might be one of the reasons why people such as Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor could make – and be celebrated for – 12 Years a Slave: they were not American. Being an outsider always makes a difference, although it’s not always a good thing. It gives you distance but also leaves you slightly isolated.
Poitier went out of fashion. For some people he was too white to be Black. They wanted to give Black people a full range and didn’t care for that kind of representation. But he carried on doing exactly what he was always doing and the world came back to him. I think few people know how committed he was to the cause, and how brilliantly he used his insider status in the system to his – and other Black people’s – advantage. I suspect he often used subterfuge to get what he wanted.
He made it possible not only for Black actors to act but for Black people to want to do it. He climbed the ladder but he didn’t pull it up after him. He went: “This is it! You can come here too, and if I can help, I will.”
Poitier was the one who made it to the top of the hill. It was a hard climb, but he did it, and his achievement maybe offered a glimpse of what might be possible for people like me. We could at least try.