It’s an undisputed fact: Old Hollywood is legendary for its cast of immensely talented actors and actresses. So, in honor of Black History Month, I want to celebrate a few of the many black actors and actresses who left us a lasting legacy.
Sidney Poitier (February 20, 1927–): Sidney Poitier is a living legend. In his early twenties, he was working as a dishwasher in New York City when he discovered his love for acting. After convincing the American Negro Theater (ANT) to let him work as a janitor in exchange for free acting lessons, Poitier worked hard to hone his craft. Not long after, Sidney was “filling in for Harry Belafonte” in ANT’s production of Days Of Our Youth, an opportunity that jump-started Sidney’s career. In 1950, he made his movie debut in a film called No Way Out. Just eight years later, his role in The Defiant Ones (1958) garnered him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. But it was his role in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field that secured him an Oscar for Best Actor — making Sidney the first African American male to win an Oscar.
Throughout his movie career, Poitier was hailed for refusing to play parts that were negative stereotypes. He also chose to play roles that confronted major issues. For example, in the critically acclaimed Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), the plot centers on the topic of interracial marriage, with Sidney playing the fiancé of a white woman. This movie was revolutionary because it occurred during a time when interracial marriage was a hotly debated topic in the country. In fact, during the filming of the movie, interracial marriage was still illegal in 14 states. Only six months before the release of the movie, the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that it was unconstitutional to ban it.
In addition to being an Academy Award winner, Poitier was the 2009 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the 2011 recipient of the Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award. He has also held the position of non-resident Bahamian ambassador to both Japan and to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In addition to being an ambassador, he was knighted by the Queen of England in 1974, making him a Knight Commander of the British Empire.
Ruby Dee (October 27, 1922–June 11, 2014): Like Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee started her acting career at the American Negro Theater (ANT). After studying her craft for a few years, she landed the lead role in ANT’s 1946 production of Anna Lucasta. From there her career soared, both on Broadway and in Hollywood.
In 1959, Ruby received great praise when she starred in the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, playing the wife of Sidney Poitier’s character. In fact, her portrayal of the character Ruth Younger was so wonderful that she was hired to reprise her role in the 1961 movie version of A Raisin in the Sun.
Acting wasn’t her only passion, though. An activist throughout her entire career, Dee was very much dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement, “participating in marches and speaking out for racial equality.” In 1963, she and her husband, Ossie Davis, were the emcees at the March on Washington.
Throughout her 67-year career, Ruby found success as a screenwriter, poet, playwright, journalist, and author. In addition to receiving the American National Medal of Arts in 1995, she was a 2004 Kennedy Center Honors recipient and a Grammy winner in 2007.
Lena Horne (June 30, 1917–May 9, 2010): At the age of 16, Lena Horne began her career in show business as a performer in Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. In 1938, she made her Hollywood debut in the movie The Duke is Tops, playing a singer trying to make it big. But while Horne was able to secure parts in hits such as Cabin in the Sky (1943), she had a tough time finding movie roles. As difficult as it was, though, it was her involvement in the Progressive Citizens of America group that led to the stalling of her movie career. With the fear of Communism taking over the country, countless stars — like Horne — were banned from appearing in movies, in television shows, on stage, and on radio for just the slightest suspicion.
Lena did not let this derail her entire career, so she returned to performing in nightclubs. In the mid-1950s, the Hollywood ban was removed and Horne’s acting career was revived with the 1956 film Meet Me in Las Vegas. However, she only appeared in a handful of movies after that, choosing to focus mainly on her singing career and her passion for supporting the Civil Rights Movement.