As a young kid, there really weren’t many black figures to aspire to, to mould yourself to. I was always glued to the telly and one night my dad put on this film, In the Heat of the Night. I will always remember the moment when Sidney Poitier came on screen as Virgil Tibbs. Seeing any black person on TV was extraordinary, but seeing someone with such ability, such grace, such style, changed me.
I knew how bad racism was in the US at that time, and watching that film I feared for this black character in that world. But there’s a moment where an older white gentleman, Endicott, slaps Tibbs, and he immediately slaps him back in the face. There was an audible gasp in our living room, quickly followed by cheers. It was a thing we’d never seen before – he was standing up, he was strong, and he wasn’t taking any shit.
It was revolutionary for me as a young black man to see that sort of defiance in the face of overt racism, a defiance that was mirrored in Poitier’s role in the civil rights movement and his humanitarian work. I was quite ashamed at the time of how scared racism, and even the thought of being racially abused, made me feel. So to have him stand there as this kind of gladiator, unafraid to strike this old white man back, was groundbreaking. I’m emotional even thinking about it.
Poitier at the time was playing the kind of roles that people still aren’t even writing in England today. I still haven’t played one, even at this point in my career. It’s incredible that America even back then had black characters imbued with such beauty and charm – almost disarming the view of what black actors or black people were capable of.
To Sir, with Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Poitier’s roles in those films mirrored my own experiences, because I grew up in a moment when assimilation was the theme of the day. This was followed by a much more forthright, much more in-your-face version of what black people were like in the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, which Poitier himself fell victim to, to some extent, but he remained for me this graceful figure who was beloved by everyone.
Looking at the tributes pouring in from black actors, it’s clear how he inspired all of us to rethink what was possible. Every time I go onstage, every time I make a film or TV programme, he is one of my leading lights.
I bumped into him at the Golden Globes many years ago. Two months before I had been skint, but then I got the part in Homeland, and was whisked off into this world of fame. I was looking around at all these stars, and then I turned around and there he was. I leaped out of my chair and charged across the room. He must have thought I was a complete fruitcake, but he was graceful and generous as I bleated out how much I admired him. I shook his hand – an experience I will never forget.
David Harewood is an actor