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Sir Sidney’s Bahamian ties were enduring 

When the Bay Street Boys banned Sidney Poitier’s film “No Way Out” in 1950, a movement started.

The Citizens Committee, formed by the late Cleveland Eneas and Maxwell Thompson, lobbied for the reversal of the decision.

In the film, Poitier played a doctor who must treat a racist patient. In it, the kindly, earnest, and intelligent doctor must confront racism head-on. It was unheard of at the time and it was considered “subversive”.

Its impact in The Bahamas, still a colony at the time, and under the thumb of the elite and white Bay Street Boys, was significant. 

Former Governor General Sir Arthur Foulkes said the film had a major impact on the movement toward majority rule.

“The movie, ‘No Way Out’, was really almost cataclysmic because for the first time it portrayed a Black actor in a role that you seldom, if ever, saw Black actors in,” he said yesterday.

“Not only that, the movie dealt with the issue of race, which is even less frequent at the time.

“The impact of the movie itself was really incredible. First of all, the people here in Nassau, the authorities, decided that it was too sensitive to be shown in The Bahamas. They banned the movie. Then, in response to that, there was a movement, the Citizens Committee was formed to force the authorities to show the movie but then they developed a broader agenda for social and political equality.”

He added, “What happened was the Bay Street Boys, as they were called at the time, they relented and the movie was shown in the theaters.”

Sir Arthur noted, “…It is very difficult for people today, for younger people, to understand the mindset back then. ‘What’s all of this about? Black doctor? So what?’ Back then, in a movie, that was extraordinary.

“That had a tremendous impact on the Bahamian psyche and added impetus to the movement…

“You can say the Citizens Committee was a sort of forerunner of the PLP. It didn’t last long but they did some agitation.”

Sean McWeeney, QC, agreed. 

In a statement, he said, “…there is a line that can be drawn from Sidney Poitier to his film ‘No Way Out’, to the banning of it here, to the Citizens Committee, to the organized struggle for majority rule, to the attainment of majority rule.”

Sir Sidney, the son of Bahamian tomato farmers, who was born three months premature in Miami and went on to become the first Black man to win an Academy Award, died last Thursday at his California home. 

He was 94. 

In his 1980 autobiography, “This Life”, Sir Sidney recalled helping the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) campaign in 1967. 

During a strategy meeting, Sir Sidney wrote, he was asked to help secure half a dozen sets of walkie-talkies — which were needed to help move people from outlying districts to the polls — by the next day. 

Sir Sidney said he called actor Harry Belafonte in New York and asked for help. While Belafonte was unsure he could secure walkie-talkies on a Saturday night, he agreed to help. 

To his delight, Sir Sidney said, the walkie-talkies were delivered to him the next day. 

“It was a euphoric moment when it became clear that we had won the election,” he wrote of the PLP’s victory at the polls on January 10, 1967, ushering in the first Black majority government.

“The excitement was electric — the outburst of happiness and joy I witnessed that evening in Nassau brought tears to my eyes.”

He wrote that he hoped that the new government would establish a “consistent energy toward cultural development”. 

“Well, between the big victory in 1967 and the time a few years later when I arrived in Nassau to live, there were few indications that any new cultural awareness was in the making,” he wrote. 

Sir Sidney, who had built a home in Winton, continued, “It soon became clear that there would be no cultural growth until the government encouraged it and yet the government gave it only lip service.”

In 1974, a year after The Bahamas was granted independence from Britain, Sir Sidney and his family moved to Beverly Hills. He also received a knighthood from the queen that year.

He wrote that he realized that he was seeking “refuge from the world” when he moved to The Bahamas but “my interests and obligations were already international; I was no longer a Bahamian only”. 

However, his relationship with the country continued with donations to various charities, rebuilding efforts, and education. 

In 1997, Sir Sidney was made Bahamas non-resident ambassador to Japan.

In 2012, the Christie administration named the western bridge leading to Paradise Island after him, a ceremony he attended. 

Perry Christie, the former prime minister, and close friend of Sir Sidney, said he was a great source of inspiration. 

“As a law student in England, I went to see ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’, and I left that movie theater feeling inspired, feeling a sense of satisfaction that I had seen a man who never compromised on his Blackness, who was prepared to demonstrate a level of dignity in the face of severe questioning, who understood who he was…,” he said on the Roland Martin Unfiltered podcast.

“Sidney, much to his credit, was able to take his personal beliefs and have them enshrined in all of the diverse parts that he played in the movies.”

Christie added, “I honestly think that what happened in The Bahamas, where we had a march to majority rule in 1967… Sidney Poitier was here to inspire the new government, to inspire them in their campaign, and to celebrate when, for the first time…a majority rule government was formed in The Bahamas.

“That helped us on the road to independence because he also believed that we had to demonstrate as a country that we were capable of ruling our affairs.”

His life

Sidney Poitier was born prematurely in 1927, while his parents were visiting Miami, Florida. Reginald and Evelyn had traveled to sell 100 boxes of tomatoes, when he was born, weighing less than three pounds.

He wrote in his 2000 autobiography “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” that his father, who had lost several children already, went to the local undertaker in the colored part of Miami and purchased a shoebox to serve as his casket.

His mother, he said, felt that he could be saved.

She visited a soothsayer who told her that her son would not only survive, “…He will travel to most corners of the Earth. He will walk with kings. He will be rich and famous. Your name will be carried all over the world. You must not worry about the child.”

The child returned to Cat Island with his parents, where he lived until he was 10.

The family moved to New Providence and, due to concern over his mischievous nature, which caused him to get arrested, he was sent to Florida at the age of 15 to live with his older brother. 

It would be another eight years before he saw his parents again. By that time, he was making movies.

He wrote of his mother, “I believe that my mother was a very special human being, and I think that much that has happened to me is the continuance of her soul and her spirit and her gift.”

When he arrived in New York, Poitier could not read well and, after a disastrous audition for an acting part, he promised to better himself and become an actor. 

He did, appearing in several Broadway productions. 

His characters in “No Way Out”, “Blackboard Jungle”, “Edge of the City”, “The Defiant Ones”, “A Raisin in the Sun”, and his Academy Award winning role in 1963’s “Lilies of the Field”, were men of honor who defied the racial stereotype of Black people as servants or slaves onscreen.

He shared the first onscreen interracial kiss in 1965’s “A Patch of Blue”. In 1967, he was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, and his films that year, “To Sir, with Love”, “In the Heat of the Night”, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, are considered some of his best. 

He played a pivotal part during the Civil Rights movement of the era, even marching to Washington, D.C., in 1963, with the late Martin Luther King Jr. 

Marching alongside Sir Sidney was a young Lynden Pindling, his childhood friend, who went on to become prime minister of The Bahamas for 25 years.

As the 60s came to an end, and more militant Black movements and films started, Poitier’s graceful, eloquent and kindhearted portrayal of Black men was criticized by some.

In a 2013 CBS interview, he said the criticism never hurt him. 

“I live by a certain code,” he said. 

“I have to have a certain amount of decency in my behavioral pattern.”

In the 1970s, Sir Sidney turned to directing and acting in comedies alongside his friend Bill Cosby. In “Let’s Do It Again” and “Uptown Saturday Night”, he also worked with fellow Bahamian actor Calvin Lockhart.

He kept acting until 2001, with his last film, “The Last Brickmaker in America”.

He received an honorary Academy Award in 2002, the same year that Denzel Washington won best lead actor and Halle Berry best female actress in a movie. Washington was the first Black man since Sir Sidney to win best lead actor.

Tributes

On Friday, Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis instructed that the Bahamian flag be flown at half-mast at home and at the country’s embassies around the world. 

“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,” Davis said in a televised address.

Noting that Sir Sidney lived to a “mighty age”, former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said he was pleased that he agreed to serve as ambassador to Japan. 

“I was especially happy when, breaking with a lifelong commitment not to become involved in official government bureaucracy, Sidney accepted the invitation from my government to serve as non-resident ambassador of The Bahamas to Japan,” he said.

“I was not surprised when his presentation of credentials to the Japanese emperor, Akihito, on 16th April 1997 was carried by the BBC news and major American news outlets but was amazed that the event was considered of such note that the BBC interrupted its regular broadcasts to carry the ceremony live.

“Reports were that the emperor broke with his own protocol to speak with the new ambassador as a fan of his films. Indeed, Sidney’s Bahamian roots was not infrequently a subject of my light exchanges with world leaders.”

Opposition Leader Michael Pintard said, “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 added, “While we have named the new Nassau Paradise Island bridge in honor of Sir Sidney, it would be wonderful to name the School of Arts at the University of The Bahamas in his honor…

“As a creative, myself, he was a constant source of inspiration for me as well as thousands of Bahamian artists and artisans.”

Sir Sidney is survived by his wife Joanna Shimkus and five daughters, Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, Anika, and Sydney. He is predeceased by his daughter Gina, who died in 2018. 

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Travis Cartwright-Carroll

Travis Cartwright-Carroll is the assistant editor. He covers a wide range of national issues. He joined The Nassau Guardian in 2011 as a copy editor before shifting to reporting. He was promoted to assistant news editor in December 2018.

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