Sidney Poitier was an icon of racial reassurance. But his genius lay in his rage.

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Throughout that decade Poitier, who died Thursday at 94, cultivated a persona of quiet, self-confident authority and classic style. He became the first Black man to win an Oscar for best actor, for his portrayal of an easygoing handyman who befriends a group of nuns in 1963’s “Lilies of the Field”; months later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would accept the Nobel Peace Prize, making them twin symbols of Black excellence. Ever conscious of his cultural power, Poitier went out of his way to select roles that would help Hollywood break out of the toxic tradition of African American actors being relegated to roles as servants, musicians and degrading comic relief. In “The Slender Thread,” he took on the race-neutral role of a crisis-hotline volunteer. “A Patch of Blue” (1965), in which he played a man who befriends a blind White girl, and “To Sir, With Love” (1967), in which he played a teacher in a White working-class London school, were both parables of racial healing and mutual understanding.

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