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Latest honor for Sidney Poitier: A film school in his name

Jocelyn Noveck
Associated Press

New York — In 1963, Sidney Poitier made a film in Arizona, “Lilies of the Field.” The performance led to a huge milestone: He became the first Black winner of a lead-acting Oscar.

Now, Arizona is the site of another career milestone for the legendary actor and filmmaker — Arizona State University has named its new film school after him. The Sidney Poitier New American Film School was unveiled at a virtual ceremony on Monday.

Actor Sidney Poitier arrives at the Oscars in Los Angeles on March 2, 2014. Arizona State University has named its new film school after Poitier.

The decision to name the school after Poitier, 93, is about much more than his achievements and legacy, but because he “embodies in his very person that which we strive to be — the matching of excellence and drive and passion with social purpose and social outcomes, all things that his career has really stood for,” said Michael M. Crow, president of the university.

“You’re looking for an icon, a person that embodies everything you stand for,” Crow said in an earlier interview. “With Sidney Poitier, it’s his creative energy, his dynamism, his drive, his ambition, the kinds of projects he worked on, the ways in which he advanced his life.”

“Look at his life: It’s a story of a person who found a way,” he said of the actor, who was born in Miami and raised in the Bahamas, the son of tomato farmers, before launching a career that went from small, hard-won theater parts to eventual Hollywood stardom. “How do we help other young people find their way?”

The university, which is expanding its existing film program into its own school, says it has invested millions of dollars in technology to create what’s intended to be one of the largest, most accessible and most diverse film schools. Crow said that much like the broader university, the film school will measure success not by exclusivity but by inclusivity.

By expanding both its physical resources and flexible learning options like online study, it hopes to enroll thousands more students, teaching them skills that go far beyond traditional moviemaking.

The school will move in the fall of 2022 to a new facility in downtown Mesa, Arizona, 7 miles from the university’s Tempe Campus. It will also occupy the university’s new center in Los Angeles.

The university did not make Poitier, who has been out of the public eye for some time, available for an interview. His daughter Beverly Poitier-Henderson told The Associated Press her father was “doing well and enjoying his family,” and considered it an honor to be the namesake of the new film school.

Actor Sidney Poitier appears with his Oscar for best actor, for his role in "Lillies of the Field," at the 36th Annual Academy Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., on April 13, 1964.

Poitier-Henderson and two of Poitier’s other daughters described in interviews how the film school’s emphasis on inclusivity and access aligned with their father’s long-held ideals.

“If it has my Dad’s name on it, it has to be inclusive, because that’s the foundation of who he is and what he stands for,” said Anika Poitier, like her father a filmmaker. “And it’s important to not only have inclusion but to have diversity, and to give people the opportunity to tell their stories. I think it’s imperative to cast a wide net and allow anyone who’s called to tell their story to learn how to do that.”

Sydney Poitier Heartsong, the actor’s youngest daughter, noted that the two most important things to her father as she grew up were education and the arts.

“Those are the two tracks that run throughout his life, that define what he has contributed and defined what he felt was important to impart to his kids,” she said. “The arts were also a form of education. He wanted to pass that on to all young people but specifically young people of color.”

Poitier Heartsong, who followed her father’s footsteps into acting, added that the new school had special resonance in a time when “we’ve come to recognize that from a socioeconomic standpoint, a lot of (elite) schools exclude people of color disproportionately — and people without the means to go to them. That is the antithesis of what my father would want to be a part of.”

And she noted that in Poitier’s heyday, when he won his Oscar, one of his biggest complaints was that “he was the only one up there, and he wanted others to be up there with him. Well, others can’t be up there with him if they don’t have access to these tools and these educations. Not the way the world works today. “

The ASU film production programs now enroll 700 students, said Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts there, but that number is expected to double over three to five years.

“I just hope that the students at the Sidney Poitier Film School take up the mantle of responsibility the way our father took up the mantle when he was coming up in his career,” said Poitier-Henderson, “and tell their stories regardless of finances, which is easy for us to say. But you’ve got to be true to yourself. It’s a very powerful thing, and I’m looking forward to seeing who comes out of it.”

Appearing with a congratulatory message at the virtual unveiling was Poitier’s longtime friend, Harry Belafonte, who called Poitier “a dear human being and a wonderful American citizen.”