Tributes to Sidney Poitier Pour in From Hollywood and Beyond

Jan. 7, 2022, 6:06 p.m. ET

Jan. 7, 2022, 6:06 p.m. ET

ImageSidney Poitier at an event honoring Shirley MacLaine in Culver City, Calif., in 2012. 
Credit…Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

LONG ISLAND, the Bahamas — Sidney Poitier, who grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas, has long been regarded in the country as a trailblazer.

The Bahamian minister of foreign affairs, Fred Mitchell, who said he became friends with Mr. Poitier when he served as the Bahamian nonresident ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007, described him as a giant and a role model.

“He was a Bahamian who was able to stride across the world like a colossus,” Mr. Mitchell said in an interview on Friday. “And it is therefore possible for any other Bahamian to do that, to follow in that route, and he leaves a legacy of enormous respect and has left an indelible mark for Bahamians across the world.”

Mr. Poitier, who died on Thursday night at his residence in Los Angeles at the age of 94, was the son of tomato farmers on Cat Island, a 150 square mile spindle of land with a population today of about 1,500.

The youngest of nine children, he wore clothes made from flour sacks and never saw a car until his father moved the family to Nassau in 1937 after Florida banned Bahamian tomatoes. He moved to Miami to live with a brother when he was 14, then a year later to New York City, where he started his long acting career.

Mr. Mitchell said that, like many people in the Bahamas, he grew up knowing Mr. Poitier as an Hollywood icon, watching his films at the Capitol Theater in Nassau.

“He was the son of two ordinary Bahamians from Over-the-Hill and Cat Island,” Mitchell said. “And he had extraordinary success on the world stage, on the screen, so that every movie that came out, my mother made sure that all of us, as children, were bundled up and sent to the Capitol Theatre on Market Street to see these movies.”

But Mr. Poitier’s influence in the Bahamas was not limited to the big screen. He was also remembered as a driving force behind the push in 1967 to elect a parliament that reflected the nation’s Black majority in what was then a British colony. He gave logistical support to the Progressive Liberal Party under Lynden O. Pindling, the nation’s first Black prime minister, who led the Bahamas to independence in 1973, Mr. Mitchell said.

“He used his celebrity status, his connection with his friends in the United States to help promote majority rule for our country,” Mr. Mitchell said. “And he was very much a part of it, no question.”

Franklyn Wilson, a former PLP cabinet minister, said Mr. Poitier wielded considerable political influence. Mr. Poitier’s house on New Providence island became the scene of Sunday afternoon political seminars in the late 1960s, where he and Mr. Pindling would discuss public policy.

“We would have these sessions at Sidney’s house on Winton Highway,” Mr. Wilson recalled. “And, by and large, Sidney was such a captivating figure that you can’t really say it was a conversation. You could describe it more accurately as lectures.”

“When he started speaking, you just were in awe,” Mr. Wilson added. “And his realness just came across so clearly. The persona you saw in the world of cinematography and all that was the real man.”

Mr. Wilson recalled that Mr. Poitier had once told him, “When you walk through the door of opportunity, you have one responsibility, and that is to make sure you leave the door open.”

“He kicked down the door,” Mr. Wilson said. “He didn’t just leave it open. He kicked it down.”