By Donna M. Owens
Sidney Poitier, the dashing, trailblazing star of stage and screen, has received countless accolades and awards as one of Hollywood’s most revered icons. Now, the actor, filmmaker, and best-selling author in his ninth decade has received another high honor: a film school that bears his name.
Last week, Arizona State University (ASU) established The Sidney Poitier New American Film School, one of five under the banner of the university’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. While its origins began as a film program 15 years ago, the name change builds on what university officials described as an avowed effort to advance diversity and inclusivity.
“We cannot imagine a stronger expression of this commitment than to have the school named for an esteemed professional whose work and life story exemplify what we want to accomplish with this new school,” said ASU president, Michael M. Crow, Ph.D.
“Sidney Poitier is a national hero and international icon whose talents and character have defined ethical and inclusive filmmaking,” adds Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute at ASU. ‘His legacy will serve as a guide and inspiration for our school and the thousands of film students we educate.”
Poitier was born in Miami, Florida, to Bahamian parents, and raised in the Caribbean and the U.S. After a brief stint in the Army, and a series of odd jobs, he eventually discovered his passion as a thespian. Poitier’s performance in Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway in 1959, garnered him a Tony nomination. He was also cast in the film version of the play.
From there, he cemented his stardom in a slew of landmark films that often dealt with racial themes: “The Defiant Ones,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “To Sir, With Love,” confronted stereotypes. He has starred in more than 40 films, directed nine features, and penned four.
Poitier broke ground as the first Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in “Lilies of the Field” in 1963; he also received an honorary Oscar presented in 2001.
Today, the humanitarian, former diplomat (Bahama’s Ambassador to Japan) and author of several books, is a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
Three of Poitier’s six daughters were part of the virtual naming celebration of The Sidney Poitier New American Film School on January 25. Besides remarks by ASU officials, students and faculty, among the special guests were Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti, and Michael Burns, an ASU alumnus who is Vice Chairman of the film studio and global content platform, Lionsgate.
“It’s fitting that ASU is embracing [my father’s] work ethic and embracing his commitment to truth and his commitment to the arts and his commitment to education,” said Beverly Poitier-Henderson, Poitier’s eldest daughter. “We’re very happy. He’s very happy.”
Adds youngest daughter and namesake, Sydney Poitier Heartsong, “It’s a huge honor to have this film school named after my dad. I think it marries the two things that have been most defining and most important to him in his life: education and the arts.”
Daughter Anika Poitier agrees. “It’s really important to have diversity in the stories that we tell, and they need to be told by the people who are living these stories. Hopefully the school will encourage people to come and learn and be able to tell their stories and have a platform in which to share those stories as well. Because I think that it’s what the world needs desperately right now.”
The school aims to prepare students to work across the entire ecology of the film and media industries. That means everything from directing and producing, to the technical and business sides of film production. Currently housed at the university’s Tempe, Arizona campus, the film school will relocate in fall 2022 to a new 118,000 square feet facility in downtown Mesa, Arizona. The school will also operate out of ASU’s new center in Los Angeles at the historic Herald Examiner building, in the entertainment capital of the world.
With the naming of the new school, Poitier will join former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and broadcaster Walter Cronkite in having their respective legacies’ permanently enshrined on ASU’s campus.
The school’s new moniker garnered praise from Harry Belafonte, a fellow Hollywood legend and longtime friend of Poitier. The two men have fought to improve access and equality for Blacks in the film industry; raised funds for the Civil Rights Movement; and were among the celebrities who took part in the 1963 March on Washington.
“I would like to congratulate Arizona State University in selecting my dear friend Sidney Poitier to name their film school after,” said Belafonte in a statement. “He’s not only a fine artist, but also a dear human being and wonderful American citizen.”