When Sidney Poitier made history as the first Black star to win Best Actor at the Oscars

8 March 2024, 16:06

Lilies of the Field – trailer for Sidney Poitier’s Oscar winning movie

By Mayer Nissim

"A long journey to this moment..."

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Over 95 years at the Academy Awards, Black actors have only 22 Oscars have been given to Black actors in the leading or supporting categories.

The very first was Hattie McDaniel, who won the Best Supporting Actress prize in 1939 for her role as Mammy in Gone With The Wind.

While Hattie was certainly worthy of the honour, the fact that the first African-American was so recognised for such a stereotypical role was unfortunate, to say the least.

And what's more, it took more than two decades after Hattie's win for a Black actor of either sex to go one better and win the gong for a leading role.

That actor was Sidney Poitier, one of the superstars from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones
Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones. Picture: Getty Images

After breaking through on the big screen in 1955's Blackboard Jungle, Poitier took the joint leading role in 1958's The Defiant Ones alongside Tony Curtis.

It was for that film that he first made history as the first Black star to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

That it was the 31st Oscars meant it had been a long time coming, but he missed out that year to David Niven, who won for his lead role in Delbert Mann's Separate Tables.

Sidney Poitier Wins Best Actor | 36th Oscars (1964)

It was another five years before Poitier would truly have his moment on the Oscars stage.

In 1963, he starred in Lilies of the Field, Ralph Nelson's adaptation of the James Poe novel from the same year. In it he played labourer Homer Smith, who happens across a group of East German nuns who believe he's been sent by God to build them a new chapel.

He was joined in the cast by Lilia Skala, Stanley Adams, and Dan Frazer.

Sidney Poitier as Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field
Sidney Poitier as Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field. Picture: Getty Images

Poitier wasn't the only person recognised by the Academy for the film.

Lilia Skala was up for Best Supporting Actress, James Poe was up for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the film itself was in the frame for Best Cinematography and even Best Picture.

It missed out in all those categories, except one. Having already picked up the Golden Globe the month earlier, Sidney Poitier won the Oscar for Best Actor, receiving it from Anne Bancroft, who had won Best Actress a year earlier for The Miracle Worker.

Sidney Poitier presented with his Oscar by Anne Bancroft
Sidney Poitier presented with his Oscar by Anne Bancroft. Picture: Getty Images

"Because it is a long journey to this moment I am naturally indebted to countless numbers of people, principally among whom are Ralph Nelson, James Poe, William Barrett, Martin Baum, and of course the members of the Academy," said Poitier at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on that famous day in 1964.

"For all of them, all I can say is a very special thank you."

After his groundbreaking moment, the number of Black actors being recognised was still very much a trickle rather than a flood. Somehow Poitier himself wasn't even nominated for In The Heat of the Night a few years later. But at least he broke the dam.