Majors, just one among generations who were influenced by Poitier, paid tribute to the late stalwart of cinema.
When Sidney Poitier died last week at the age of 94, he left behind generations of children. Poitier, who was the first Black actor to ever win an Oscar when he took home a Best Actor trophy in 1964 for his role in Lillies of the Field, perhaps more than any single star paved the way for Black stories and stars to exist on-screen. One of the countless beneficiaries includes Jonathan Majors, the actor who penned a letter to Poitier in The Hollywood Reporter as a means of tribute to the late stalwart of cinema.
Majors, the star of Lovecraft Country and, more recently, The Harder They Fall, recalls first encountering Poitier as a child, moved by his performance and character in To Sir, With Love, whose lesson about toughness registered to him as a young, self-proclaimed troublemaker. “The messenger made all the difference: a tall, charming, well-dressed, caring and strong Black man, an icon I had not yet seen on my TV set,” Majors writes.
In college, Majors had a headshot of Poitier taped up on the wall of his college dorm at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “I had a bad speech impediment and was wrestling with my identity as a Black man, a Black Southern man who was now in a training program that was telling me I didn’t sound like a ‘real’ actor,” he recalls. “I can’t tell you how many times I cried in those early years of school looking up at that taped-up printout of you, wondering how to be me and still do this acting thing, to stay on the mission, to remain brave.”
The motivation to push through came from Poitier’s defiant words in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a radical work in 1967 that depicted interracial marriage and confronted the prejudices around it that were raging on in the country at the time: “You don’t know who I am. You don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it, the rest of your life you will never understand.” Majors writes, “It was my initiation into the artistic vanguard, for which you, sir, were and will forever be the chairman of the board.”
The heartfelt letter is just one of a sea of tributes that have come since Poitier passed away, from President Joe Biden and Barack Obama to Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, each in some way praising not only his status as a trailblazer on-screen, but also the inherent dignity he carried while elevating Black stories that confronted racism that was and is endemic to the nation.
“How you managed to withstand all the isolation, all the naysayers, all the haters, we will never know,” Majors writes. “But please, trust and believe the mission continues, your legacy lives on in us, and the tectonic industry shift and elevation you single-handedly achieved is being felt to this day, your blueprint left in good hands.”