Sidney Poitier’s Oscar speeches: ‘There was no custom for me to follow’

On 24 March 2002, Sidney Poitier received an honorary Oscar “in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being”.

The award was presented to him by Denzel Washington, who introduced him with these words.

From time to time the Academy bestows an honorary award on a member of the film industry. Sometimes for a body of work, sometimes for work done to better the industry. Sometimes for the influence created for other film-makers around the world.

This year they honour a man who qualifies in all three areas. And who is also unique in the history of film. They call him Sidney Poitier.

Before Sidney, African-American actors had to take supporting roles in major studio films, that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country. But you couldn’t cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture. He was the reason a movie got made. the first solo, above the title, African-American movie star. He was unique.

Poitier then took to the stage amid a standing ovation. This was his speech.

Sidney Poitier in 2002.
Sidney Poitier in 2002. Photograph: Doug Mills/AP

I arrived in Hollywood at the age of 22 in a time different than today’s, a time in which the odds against my standing here tonight 53 years later would not have fallen in my favour. Back then, no route had been established for where I was hoping to go, no pathway left in evidence for me to trace, no custom for me to follow.

Yet, here I am this evening at the end of a journey that in 1949 would have been considered almost impossible and in fact might never have been set in motion were there not an untold number of courageous, unselfish choices made by a handful of visionary American film-makers, directors, writers and producers; each with a strong sense of citizenship responsibility to the times in which they lived; each unafraid to permit their art to reflect their views and values, ethical and moral, and moreover, acknowledge them as their own.

They knew the odds that stood against them and their efforts were overwhelming and likely could have proven too high to overcome. Still those film-makers persevered, speaking through their art to the best in all of us. And I’ve benefited from their effort. The industry benefited from their effort. America benefited from their effort. And in ways large and small the world has also benefited from their effort.

Therefore, with respect, I share this great honour with the late Joe Mankiewicz, the late Richard Brooks, the late Ralph Nelson, the late Darryl Zanuck, the late Stanley Kramer, the Mirisch brothers – especially Walter whose friendship lies at the very heart of this moment – Guy Green, Norman Jewison, and all others who have had a hand in altering the odds for me and for others.

Without them this most memorable moment would not have come to pass and the many excellent young actors who have followed in admirable fashion might not have come as they have to enrich the tradition of American film-making as they have. I accept this award in memory of all the African-American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years, on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go.

My love and my thanks to my wonderful, wonderful wife, my children, my grandchildren, my agent and friend Martin Baum. And finally, to those audience members around the world who have placed their trust in my judgment as an actor and film-maker, I thank each of you for your support through the years. Thank you.

In 1964, Poitier had become the first Black person to win the best actor Oscar. This is what he said back then.

Because it is a long journey to this moment I am naturally indebted to countless numbers of people, principally among whom are Ralph Nelson, James Poe, William Barrett, Martin Baum, and of course the members of the Academy. For all of them, all I can say is a very special thank you.

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