Sidney Poitier’s defiance, grace and style changed me – and shaped my life as an actor | David Harewood

His roles in films like To Sir with Love mirrored my own experiences, and made me rethink what was possible

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


David Harewood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sidney review – Poitier’s epic life story a paean to charm, talent and heroism
Directed by Reginald Hudlin, this Oprah Winfrey-produced documentary is an eloquent rebuke to the ‘sellout’ narrative that bedevilled Poitier’s stellar career

Peter Bradshaw

11, Sep, 2022 @1:30 AM

Article image
Sidney Poitier's Mister Tibbs voted best performance by black actor in public poll
Actor’s turn in In the Heat of the Night tops the BFI’s Black Star poll, while industry experts pick Angela Bassett’s performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It

Alan Evans

20, Oct, 2016 @3:30 PM

Article image
Sidney Poitier: a natural film star who quietly pioneered a revolution
Poitier, who has died aged 94, came to fame via a trio of movie roles defined by race and racial difference

Peter Bradshaw

07, Jan, 2022 @3:51 PM

Article image
Officer and a gentleman: how Sidney Poitier united a divided America
As Poitier’s 1967 film In the Heat of the Night is re-released in UK cinemas, it’s time to celebrate an actor whose dignity and restraint brought people together at a time of deep racial divisions

Michael Newton

11, Nov, 2016 @3:00 PM

Article image
Long journey to an Oscar for Sidney Poitier – archive
From the archive: How the Guardian reported on Sidney Poitier’s historic win at the 1964 Oscars

Alistair Cooke

13, Apr, 1964 @1:35 AM

Article image
Diana’s life shaped Britain. But in death she’s changed us too | Jonathan Freedland
That emotion-fuelled week in 1997 rocked the monarchy, and provided a foretaste of today’s populism, says Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland

Jonathan Freedland

05, Aug, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
And the Oscar for best actor goes to … ‘us’ | Catherine Shoard
Now Hollywood blockbusters are trying to reel in audiences using taglines in which a bogus ‘we’ fight back, live or die, or just find a bigger pair of pants

Catherine Shoard

14, Jun, 2016 @4:38 PM

Article image
Life ain’t fair, but you won’t fix that at Cannes | Catherine Shoard
Once you allow positive discrimination to become a factor in deciding who wins awards, the whole process becomes devalued

Catherine Shoard

17, May, 2016 @4:57 PM

Article image
It’s painful watching the male crisis onscreen – more painful in real life | Deborah Orr
By exploring negative aspects of masculinity, Manchester By the Sea and Moonlight help us all

Deborah Orr

18, Feb, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Choose life? Trainspotting’s realism hit a nerve, but we want escapism now | Catherine Shoard
Films used to make us face up to the real world – but today they allow us to avoid modernity and wallow in nostalgia

Catherine Shoard

19, Jan, 2017 @6:30 AM