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Legacy of legendary Sidney Poitier to live on through ASU students

January 7, 2022

Film school renamed for trailblazing actor-director in 2021

Sidney Poitier, a Hollywood icon who broke racial barriers in his roles and as the first Black man to win the best actor Oscar, left a legacy that will live on through film school students at Arizona State University.

Poitier, known for embodying characters with dignity and wisdom, died Thursday, Jan. 6, at the age of 94.

In 2021, ASU renamed its film school after the legendary actor and director in a move that signified the university’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity.

The Sidney Poitier New American Film School, with nearly 700 students, is one of five schools in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU.

The founding director of the film school, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, knew Poitier and called him “a beacon of light.”

“I first met Sidney Poitier decades ago because he was a friend of my brother’s, Ashley Boone, a pioneer in this business,” she said.

“Then when I got into the film business, I would run into him every once in a while, usually around Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) events. And when I was elected president of the academy, our relationship solidified. When I was honored by Essence Magazine, Sidney presented me with the award, alongside Oprah Winfrey, and Sidney later presented me with an award I received from the YWCA of Greater Los Angeles.

“He always exemplified excellence, humanity — he was such a beacon of light that really lit the way for many of us, especially in the creative Black community.

“Sidney was far reaching in his philanthropic endeavors, his civil rights movement involvement. He always used his light to advance others.”

ASU President Michael Crow offered condolences to the Poitier family and everyone whose lives Poitier touched.

“It was with great sadness that we learned this morning of the passing of Sidney Poitier, an American film legend and an inspiration for countless people across the country and around the world, as well as the man for whom Arizona State University’s New American Film School is named,” Crow said.

“His contributions were immense and will be forever associated with grace, with talent and with striving to be your best while also being of service to others. He was self-made, he was committed to his craft, and our university and our students will hold his example at the forefront of what we do for generations to come.”

Poitier won the Oscar for his role in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field,” which was shot and set in southern Arizona. He returned to Arizona twice more in the 1980s to direct “Stir Crazy” and “Hanky Panky.”

Attending a film school named for Poitier will connect ASU’s students to the continuum of history, according to Tiffany Ana López, the vice provost for inclusive excellence at ASU. She is the former director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute.

“He is an essential part of understanding American film history,” López said at the time of the renaming in 2021.

“He has a litany of ‘firsts,’ but it’s important for students and people following the film school to understand the impact of being first and to have people understand what is possible.

“This is why representation, seeing people who look like you on the screen, is so important. Because if you can’t see it, it’s hard to imagine being it.”

Many of Poitier’s movies addressed race, starting with “No Way Out,” a 1950 film in which he played a doctor who had to treat two white racists. In 1967 alone, he starred in three hit movies dealing with racial tensions: “To Sir, With Love,” “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night.”

In the fall 2021 semester, the film school offered its inaugural class on the life and legacy of Poitier, co-taught by López and Jason Scott, an associate professor and associate director of the film school. Students created final projects, such as proposals for films, videos and online content, as well as interactive installations, based on reading Poitier’s memoirs, watching his films and researching his impact on audiences and filmmakers.

López said that the students spoke about how studying Poitier’s work changed their viewpoints on film.

“His life and career helped them see the power of being yourself and having a strong work ethic, telling stories you want to tell and not what others expect from you, and, most importantly, making films about the people you care about,” she said on Friday.

The 2021 film school naming included a celebration video that featured remarks by three of Poitier’s six daughters.

Beverly Poitier-Henderson said at the naming: “It’s fitting that ASU is embracing his work ethic and embracing his commitment to truth and his commitment to the arts and his commitment to education. We’re very happy. He’s very happy.”

“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 and that’s a huge problem in this industry,” said Anika Poitier, who is a director and actor. “There are so many stories about Black people and brown people and women that are not told by the people who have lived these stories, and to deny their perspective is dangerous.”

Anika Poitier said she hopes the Sidney Poitier New American Film School will encourage students to tell their stories and provide a platform to share them.

“Because I think that it’s what the world needs desperately right now.”

Sydney Poitier Heartsong, an actor and producer, said that her father wanted Black people to have opportunities in all aspects of the film industry.

“I know at the time, the thing that angered him the most was that he was the only one. He was the only one standing up there. He was the only one with an Academy Award. And he fought so that others could be included as well,” she said. “He wanted to see his story and his likeness represented on the screen, and he was also keenly aware of the fact that that wasn’t going to fully happen, in the way that it should, unless there were people also behind the camera.”

Poitier grew up in the Bahamas and moved to New York as a teenager. Working as a dishwasher, he responded to an ad seeking actors for the American Negro Theatre.

In his 1980 memoir “This Life,” Poitier describes how, after a brief audition, he was rejected because of his strong Bahamian accent. So he bought a radio and listened to it constantly, mimicking the voices until he lost his accent. Six months later, he tried again and was accepted. He later discovered that he got in because not enough men had auditioned.

His first role was a small part in “Lysistrata” on Broadway. On opening night, he had such acute stage fright that he froze, bungling the lines. The audience laughed, and the newspaper review the next day praised his comedic talents.

After acting in road shows for a few years, Poitier went to Hollywood in 1950 to star in his first movie, “No Way Out.” He was 22 years old, playing a doctor who treats two white brothers who are racists, and was at ease in front of the cameras.

By 1958, he had starring roles. In “The Defiant Ones,” Poitier and Tony Curtis played escaped prisoners who were shackled together. Curtis requested that both of their names appear above the movie title. Both were nominated for best actor Oscars, with Poitier becoming the first Black man nominated. David Niven won that year for “Separate Tables.”

Poitier made a triumphant return to Broadway in 1960 in “Raisin in the Sun,” a play by Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry that he called “an uplifting experience.” He starred in the film version as well.

In 1963, Poitier traveled to southern Arizona to make “Lilies of the Field,” playing a handyman who reluctantly builds a chapel for a group of nuns. In “This Life,” Poitier says little about his time in Arizona except that the movie was on such a tight budget the shooting schedule was condensed into a fast two weeks.

Poitier won the best acting Oscar for his role. In his memoir, he recounted his reaction: “I was happy for me, but I was also happy for the ‘folks.’ We had done it. We Black people had done it. We were capable. We forget sometimes, having to persevere against unspeakable odds, that we are capable of infinitely more than the culture is yet willing to credit to our account.”

Poitier’s blockbuster year was 1967, in which three of biggest hits were released: “To Sir, With Love,” in which he plays an engineer teaching a rowdy group of students in London’s East End; “In the Heat of the Night,” playing a police detective investigating the murder of a white businessman, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in which Poitier’s character is engaged to a white woman. All of the movies directly addressed racial issues.

In “This Life,” Poitier wrote about his career slowdown in the 1970s, and the backlash over his many distinguished characters — often the only Black character in a movie filled with white people: “A Black man was put in a suit with a tie, given a briefcase; he could become a doctor, a lawyer or police detective. That was a plus factor for us, to be sure, but it certainly was not enough the satisfy the yearnings of an entire people. It simply wasn’t.”

He stayed away from Hollywood during the heyday of Black exploitation films (mostly made by white men), which he saw as only temporarily satisfying to Black audiences, who would eventually want movies that reflected their lives better than a doctor or a hustler.

That’s where he saw the role of comedy. In “This Life,” he described screening “Uptown Saturday Night,” the third movie he directed, to a roomful of white production company executives in 1974. After the movie ended, there was an awkward silence from the group, who didn’t know what to make of its joyful depiction of Black humor and camaraderie. It was a huge hit.

Poitier returned to Arizona twice as a director. When he was directing “Stir Crazy” in 1980, Columbia Pictures wanted to rent what was then called the Arizona State Prison in Florence. The warden agreed and used the money to build a rodeo arena. More than 300 inmates signed on to be extras in the movie.

Two years later, Poitier returned to Tucson to direct “Hanky Panky.”

Poitier acted in fewer films in the 1980s and ’90s, adding roles in TV movies and shows, including portrayals of Thurgood Marshall and Nelson Mandela.

He served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007.

WATCH: The naming celebration for the Sidney Poitier New American Film School

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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News Co/Lab class to help address housing insecurity

January 7, 2022

Solutions journalism has become a popular form of storytelling in recent years, and Arizona State University's News Co/Lab will apply its use in a new class to help address the nation’s housing insecurity crisis.

The Community Engagement Reporting course is filling up fast and will make its debut in the spring semester. Taught by Celeste Sepessy, a lecturer at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the class will educate students on one of the country’s most pressing issues.

They’ll immerse themselves in the topic with Sepessy’s guidance and through “listening sessions” with those who are experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. The hope is that the marginalized will have their voices lifted so leaders can think of and provide better solutions.

ASU News spoke to Sepessy and Kristy Roschke, the managing director of the News Co/Lab, a Cronkite School initiative aimed at helping people find new ways of understanding and interacting with news and information. Here’s what they had to say about the new class, housing insecurity and potential outcomes from this endeavor.

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Kristy Roschke

Question: How did you develop the idea for the Community Engagement Reporting class?

Kristy Roschke: After working with several professional newsrooms to incorporate more community engagement into their work, it had become a dream of ours to develop a course that would teach Cronkite students to do the same. Housing insecurity is a critical issue that impacts so many in our community, so we knew it would be an important topic to explore in a way that prioritizes the voices of those who are experiencing or have experienced it. We are grateful that the Arizona Community Foundation is also focused on this issue and agreed to support our work. We are also fortunate to be teaming up with several community partners to help us facilitate conversations and give us a better understanding of this complex issue.

Celeste Sepessy: Journalism students are tired of hearing that the industry is in a crisis. They want things to be better, both in the newsroom and in the community. But it’s up to us as instructors to give them the tools to do that — that’s why we’re focusing on engagement and solutions journalism in this class. Cronkite students will learn how to work with the community and create journalism that focuses on not just the problems, but creative responses. We expect our students to become newsroom leaders in this growing movement.

Q: It appears as if the rising cost of housing, the pandemic and the loss of jobs as a result of COVID-19 has created the perfect storm for housing insecurity. Are there any other factors worth mentioning?

Roschke: The events of the past couple years have certainly exacerbated what was already a big problem in Phoenix due to insufficient affordable options, racial discrimination in housing, gentrification and more. A 2021 Morrison Institute report states that four in 10 Arizonans in low-paying jobs pay more than half their income for housing or are experiencing homelessness, but receive no federal assistance. We are eager to meet with community members to learn more about the specific challenges they’ve faced, as well as the suggestions they have for tackling the problem. Our hope is that, through our process, we can help elevate community needs to stakeholders in order to imagine different solutions.  

Sepessy: It's also important to mention that housing insecurity disproportionately affects certain populations, like people of color and members of the LGBTQ community, especially youth. That's why we've identified local community partners like one•n•ten, Phoenix Rescue Mission and Paz de Cristo to help us host listening sessions. We think it's critically important that students hear these marginalized voices and help lift them up in the public sphere.

Q: This class will include several listening sessions between student journalists and community members experiencing housing insecurity. What will these sessions look like, and what outcomes are you looking for?

Roschke: The idea and format for the listening sessions comes from the Local Voices Network and Cortico, a nonprofit organization that highlights unheard voices in the public dialogue. Our Cronkite colleague Andrew Heyward is an adviser to Cortico, so we were familiar with the useful features the technology could offer.

Each listening session will include four to six community members and a couple student facilitators. The listening sessions will follow a general script, but unlike in a typical focus group, the participants will dictate where the conversation goes. Our goal as facilitators is to make participants feel comfortable and safe sharing their stories, thoughts and ideas, and to encourage open and constructive dialogue. The listening sessions are recorded with Cortico’s technology, which will then transcribe the conversations and identify key themes and sentiment throughout and between the conversations. The technology is a dream for journalists, because it takes care of a lot of the tedious work of transcribing long conversations. This allows us to focus on a deeper level of analysis to pursue potential themes and solutions across the conversations.

Q: This class is also a first-of-its-kind for the Cronkite School. What are you hoping students will gain from their experiences?

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Celeste Sepessy

Sepessy: Journalism students are often taught to distance themselves from issues, sources and facts. But there are times when we need to go beyond the norm of balanced reporting and think of solutions. I want to help my students be empathetic community members that serve the public good. That certainly involves the tough questions journalists typically ask — looking at how established power structures create and maintain inequities. But it also means questioning our own identities, not just as journalists, but as people, and how that affects our work. Many students are already inherently doing this, but I hope to provide the framework to further empower them.

In class, they'll learn how to build better relationships with community groups and their members. It's not just about popping in for a quick interview, never to be seen again. My students will be volunteering at our partner organizations and spending considerable time listening to participants' hopes for their communities.

Listening is the key part here. We want community members to identify the issues facing their communities and possible solutions. Ultimately, that's what will inform our journalism. We don’t want to contribute to these populations' trauma, as is often the case for vulnerable people. We want to share their experiences and suggestions about how we can address the housing insecurity crisis, whether that's on a micro or macro level.

Q: Will there be any other surprises or outcomes from this class?

Roschke: We are committed to producing journalism that is as much for the impacted community — especially those who share their time and insights with us in the listening sessions — as it is for the general public. So often reporting on housing insecurity can feel so transactional, and the finished product ends up in media the subjects don’t have access to. So in addition to more traditional digital storytelling, we’ll be exploring different ways to share our content. The students will ultimately decide what formats we go with, but we’ll be exploring ideas like printing newsletters or a zine that will be distributed through our partner organizations, and even texting stories to participants. This entire process is about thinking beyond the typical reporting process, and we want students to think creatively about how they approach all aspects of their projects, especially in the finished product.

Again, we are grateful to the Arizona Community Foundation for supporting this pilot project. We hope a successful pilot will lead to more classes in the future.     

Sepessy: This will be a totally new teaching experience for me, and I'm excited to model what we're learning — deeper listening, community building, cross-discipline collaboration and meaningful reflection — in my classroom. I'll be volunteering at dinner services alongside my students. I'll be learning from our incredible guest speakers, including the Office of Applied Innovation Managing Director Luke Tate and Director of Social Embeddedness Christina Ngo. And I'll be brainstorming how we can transform a 1,000-word article into something more accessible to our community. It's going to be a fun, impactful semester.

Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images

Reporter , ASU News