The pioneering film star’s daughter describes a loving father and how her appreciation of his cultural and political significance grew as she did – plus what he taught her about acting
When I first think of my father, I don’t think of an actor or a cultural figure. I think of this playful, goofy man who would sing me and my sister To Bed, To Bed, To Bed, said Sleepyhead, a bedtime song he learned in the Bahamas. Then there was this aeroplane game, where he’d pick us up one at a time, fly us around the house, and at the end, pretend to dunk our heads in the toilet. We’d laugh and scream and he’d hug us tight. That was the heart of who my dad was.
Only in my teens did I start to take in the magnitude of who he was and what he did; as a kid, when he was on screen, I just thought it was funny. As I got older, I started to get a very deep appreciation for the career choices that he made, such as being in a scene where he’s kissing a white woman in the back of a cab in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. That film resonated with me particularly because my mom [Canadian actor Joanna Shimkus] is white, and her name is also Joanna [like Poitier’s girlfriend, played by Katharine Houghton]. As a child, it felt like watching my parents’ love story, but as I matured I realised how brave it was to tell that story in the mid-1960s when interracial marriage was still illegal in many states.