Sidney Poitier & Denzel Washington
Sidney Poitier & Denzel Washington

Films, talks & events

Sidney Poitier & Denzel Washington

8 July — 31 August 2022

still from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, US 1967)
still from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, US 1967)

Sidney Poitier was a pioneer. In 1963, he was the first African American male to win the Oscar for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field. Poitier was lauded for his style, intelligence and classical technique. He was graceful, self-aware and had immense presence on screen.

Sidney Poitier was Denzel Washington’s shining example. The actors were good friends, but never played in a film together. This summer, Eye brings them together on the big screen for the first time by showing the best of their films.

still from Malcolm X (Spike Lee, US 1992)
still from Malcolm X (Spike Lee, US 1992)

Poitier, who died this year, aged 94, worked for the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr. and worked for equality. His career was of great importance to African American actors in post-war cinematic history; his characters are examples of pride and fortitude.

still from Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, US 1963)
still from Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, US 1963)
still from In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, US 1967)
still from In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, US 1967)

Of great importance was the scene in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) in which Poitier, as Virgil Gibbs, slaps the racist plantation owner Mr Endicott across the face. The scene is a classic: Poitier became famed for “the punch heard around the world,” an important moment in African American cinema and for the civil rights movement.

Denzel Washington

38 years after Poitier received his Oscar, Denzel Washington became only the second African American male to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Training Day.

still from Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, US 2001)
still from Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, US 2001)
still from Cry Freedom (Richard Attenborough, GB/ZW 1987)
still from Cry Freedom (Richard Attenborough, GB/ZW 1987)

Washington justly gets much praise for his portrayal of historical figures. His first Oscar nomination was for Cry Freedom, in which he played South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. Later on, he played activist Malcolm X in Malcolm X.

Denzel Washington is just as multi-faceted as Poitier; he played countless roles demonstrating that African American actors are actors first and foremost. Both Poitier and Washington played in films with racial themes, without shying away from genre films.

Washington viewed Sidney Poitier as his role model and mentor. Vice versa, Poitier considered Denzel Washington his successor, the person to further the route Poitier had forged and reinforce the position of African Americans in the film industry.

“He had taken the concept of African Americans in films to a place where I couldn’t, I didn’t, and he has taken it there with the same kind of integrity that I tried to do and to articulate. I thank him for that.”

Sidney Poitier on Denzel Washington

still from Paris Blues (Martin Ritt, US 1961)
still from Paris Blues (Martin Ritt, US 1961)
still from Fences (Denzel Washington, US 2016)
still from Fences (Denzel Washington, US 2016)

“I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do.”

Denzel Washington on Sidney Poitier

still from A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie, US 1961)
still from A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie, US 1961)

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