Legendary Bahamian actor, activist, director and ambassador Sir Sidney Poitier has died age 94.
Sir Sidney was the first Black actor to win an Academy Award – for his role in Lilies of the Field – in 1964.
He served as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007 and, in 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“It is with great sadness that I learnt this morning of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier,” Prime Minister Philip 'Brave' Davis said at a briefing at the Office of the Prime Minister on Friday, flanked by Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell.
“Our whole Bahamas grieves and extends our deepest condolences to his family. But even as we mourn, we celebrate the life of a great Bahamian, a cultural icon, an actor and film director, entrepreneur, civil and human rights activist and latterly, a diplomat.
“We admire the man, not just because of his colossal achievements, but also because of who he was. His strength of character, his willingness to stand up and be counted, and the way he plotted and navigated his life’s journey. The boy who moved from the tomato farm of Cat Island to become a waiter in the United States, the young man who not only taught himself to read and write, but who made the expression of words and thoughts and feelings central to his career.
“The man who expressed his rage against racial injustice through quiet dignity. The humanitarian who used his steely determination, not just to better himself, but to better the world that he lived in, filtered through the milk of human kindness and all of it achieved without sacrificing integrity, charm, elegance or wit.
“These things don’t come easy, but the fight can be good. Your peers don’t give you an Oscar, you win an Oscar. Success is not a given, but it can come to those who translate talent into craft and perseverance,” Mr Davis said.
Asked by a reporter if he thought the country did enough to recognise Sir Sidney when he was alive, Mr Davis said he thinks more could have been done.
In 2012, the government named the northbound Paradise Island bridge in Sir Sidney’s honour.
“I think we did a lot to give him his flowers while he was alive. We have not done enough, I think. We intend to sit as a government to see what else we can do to mark his bearing in the Bahamas and the world. . .” he said, adding that this will be a discussion point moving forward.
In response to a reporter, Mr Davis also said his government will focus on developing the orange economy as one of the key pillars of economic growth, adding that Sir Sidney’s death will propel the government to intensify its efforts to embrace that opportunity.
Tributes for Sir Sidney have poured out from those at home and abroad.
Leader of the Opposition Michael Pintard said Sir Sidney was a constant source of inspiration.
“Today, we join the world including the global cinematic community in mourning the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier, a Bahamian son, a truly gifted artist and a passionate activist,” Mr Pintard said. “Sir Sidney, through his work and off the screen contributions revealed his incredible spirit, loving soul and cultural talents to the international community. His gifts and pride in his native land brought recognition to the Bahamas and in time he became one of our nation’s most outstanding ambassadors and cultural icons.
“He was born in Miami, the son of Bahamian tomato farmers, spent his early years on stunningly beautiful Cat Island, wore clothes made from flour sacks and got into the usual boyish mischief.
“Then he left Cat Island and set out on a remarkable journey that eventually brought him recognition and acclaim around the world.
“Sir Sidney Poitier shook up the American film industry, shattered the glass ceiling which relegated black actors to minor or demeaning roles and became the first black actor to win an Oscar for his performance in the film 'Lilies of the Field'.
“His life was a source of inspiration for millions around the world especially disadvantaged young people. His life ignited a fire in the heart of thousands of Bahamians. He was endowed by his Creator with a keen intellect, talent, natural dignity and graciousness, all of which earned universal admiration.
“Sir Sidney’s career began during very difficult times as America was on the verge of a great movement for civil rights. It positively impacted that struggle, especially with the 1950 movie 'No Way Out', in which he played a black doctor opposite a racist character played by his friend Richard Widmark, and later on the movie 'Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner' with renowned American actress Katharine Hepburn which also confronted the race issue.
“Sir Sidney became active in the civil rights movement along with friends like Harry Belafonte. He introduced some of his friends to the Bahamas including Belafonte, Miriam Makeba and Sammy Davis Jr.
“The 1950 movie sent shock waves through the Bahamian social and political establishment when the political masters of the day refused to allow it to be shown here. This led to the formation of the Citizen’s Committee by a number of prominent Bahamians which not only agitated to have the movie shown but broadened its campaign for greater social equality and political progress. In the face of a vigorous campaign the authorities relented and the movie was shown in Nassau theatres, much to the delight of the population.
“While we have named the new Nassau Paradise Island bridge in honour of Sir Sidney it would be wonderful to name the School of Arts at the University of the Bahamas in his honour add to that one of the adjacent streets.
“As a creative myself he was a constant source of inspiration for me as well as thousands of Bahamian artists and artisans.
“On behalf of the Official Opposition and on my own behalf I offer sincere condolences and deep sympathy to Sir Sidney’s wife, children and other relatives. His life will always be an inspiration to us. May he rest in peace.”
American director and actor Tyler Perry said on Facebook, “Around this time last year Cicely Tyson was releasing her book and promoting it. I had no idea she would pass away shortly thereafter. Now, to wake up this morning to a call that Sidney Poitier has passed away... all I can tell you is that my heart broke in another place. The grace and class that this man has shown throughout his entire life, the example he set for me, not only as a black man but as a human being will never be forgotten. There is no man in this business who has been more of a North Star for me than Sidney Poitier.”
American talk show host Oprah Winfrey released a statement saying, “For me, the greatest of the ‘Great Trees’ has fallen: Sidney Poitier. My honour to have loved him as a mentor. Friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher. The utmost, highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious, eloquent life. I treasured him. I adored him. He had an enormous soul I will forever cherish. Blessings to Joanna and his world of beautiful daughters.”
Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper wrote on Facebook: “We have lost an icon; a hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure.
“I was conflicted with great sadness and a sense of celebration when I learned of the passing of Sir Sindey Poitier.
“Sadness that he would no longer be here to tell him how much he means to us, but celebration that he did so much to show the world that those from the humblest beginnings can change the world and that we gave him his flowers while he was with us.
“He will be missed sorely, but his is a legacy that will never be forgotten.”
Sir Sidney was born prematurely on February 20, 1927, weighing just three pounds, in Miami, where his parents had gone to deliver tomatoes from their farm on Cat Island. He spent his early years on Cat Island and he quit school at 12 to help support the family. Three years later, he was sent to live with a brother in Miami. When he was 16, he moved to New York and enlisted in the army before pursuing acting.