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Programmer Saskia Mollen on Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington

On 8 July, the summer programme on Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington starts. The actors were good friends, the first a role model for the second, but never appeared in a film together. The programme brings the two together with film screenings and in-depth talks.

By Sarah Famke Oortgijsen30 June 2022

Programmer Saskia Mollen, together with programmer Leo van Hee, put together the programme and explains what makes Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington so important, for (Black) film history but also for the civil rights movement.

“Poitier, who passed away this year at age 94, was the son of two Bahamas tomato farmers. While on vacation in Miami, Poitier was born there, prematurely. Later in life, his accidentally acquired American passport came in handy. His family had little to spend, but his American citizenship allowed him to move to Florida around the age of 15. It was the time of Jim Crow, laws that imposed racial segregation. Racism, he had never experienced that before. Why did white people have other privileges? He decided to seek his fortune in New York, but found no work there. He lied about his age in order to enlist in the military and was offered a position in a psychiatric hospital, but when his deception was exposed he was honorably discharged. Later, while working in the ministry, he saw an ad for an acting role. His audition went poorly: having only completed primary education, he could not read his text fast enough and he spoke with a heavy Caribbean accent. ‘You're better off waiting tables,’ he was told. He didn't let it go there. By listening to a lot of radio, reading newspapers and imitating people, he taught himself an American accent. Eventually he ended up in the theater through an audition. There he met Harry Belafonte and the two became very good friends.”

“Sidney Poitier did manage to get film roles and his breakthrough came in 1950 with No Way Out. He developed as a person into an activist, affiliated himself with Martin Luther King Jr. and fought for equality. As an actor, he became something of a poster child for the civil rights movement. Nevertheless, he played relatively conservative roles. It was the time of the Black Panthers, and the Black community actually expected more of him. He had to defend himself for that. He also strongly disagreed with Blaxploitation films and turned away from them. At some point he went back to the Bahamas and started directing in order to express himself creatively in a different way. He then started making more comedies.”

still from Buck and the Preacher (Sidney Poitier, US 1971)
still from Buck and the Preacher (Sidney Poitier, US 1971)
still from Antwone Fisher (Denzel Washington, US 2002)
still from Antwone Fisher (Denzel Washington, US 2002)

“Denzel Washington was born in Mount Vernon, New York. Fun fact: his father, a priest, was also called Denzel. To avoid confusion, Denzel junior's name was pronounced Denzél, instead of Dénzel. He attended Fordham University after high school to study journalism and then entered the theater conservatory. He did not finish that, because after a year he decided to look for work as an actor. He first ended up in theater. When Washington learned that Poitier, who was already famous at the time, had been in the audience on a Broadway show he was playing, he approached him. ‘You're good kid, keep this up’, Poitier told him. He then knew he had found his calling. And Poitier gave him another piece of advice: ‘The first few films you choose determine your career and who you are, and therefore also how you are going to be typecast. Choose wisely.’ The first major role in a major director's film Washington played was Steve Biko, in Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom (1987). But before that, he had already become known to the general public for his role as a doctor in the successful hospital series St. Elsewhere.”

campaign image Sidney Poitier & Denzel Washington

“After that first meeting in the theater, the two became friends, and that's how they became known as best buddies. But in the end, they never starred in films together. Washington saw Poitier as a role model and vice versa: Poitier saw Washington as his successor. ‘He took it further than I could’, Poitier said of him. He thought Washington was too modest about what he had done. Poitier gave up acting at one point — and passed away early this year — but Washington just keeps going. You might consider him part of the Hollywood elite right now.”

“It made sense to do a retrospective on Poitier: he was a trailblazer, a forerunner, quite simply a great one. His presence alone! You can see him as the first Black actor in many films, but putting that aside, he was above all just a great actor. I used to listen a lot to Harry Belafonte, Poitier's best friend. There is a very proud Caribbean community, so I think it's very special that I can now shape this programme. The first idea was a retrospective or a programme with Poitier's contemporaries. But it turned out to be a good idea to get Denzel Washington involved, many of his films we now consider modern classics. They were best friends, but this way the programme is also cross-generational. Perhaps Washington's fame can lead young people to Poitier. And there is so much more to tell, especially in a historical context. Both Poitier and Washington symbolise so many others.”

“In the programme we explain the films, but also the social and societal context in which they were made. That is why I am most looking forward to the specials, and I will also provide introductions myself. I am especially curious about the reactions from the public.”

poster Sidney Poitier & Denzel Washington

Sidney Poitier & Denzel Washington

Films, talks & events
8 July — 31 August 2022