By Jim Walsh
Long before the dedication of Mesa’s long-awaited Arizona State University building last week, the new film school and technology facility had become a magnet for bringing new businesses downtown.
Now, it has a name as well: The Sidney Poitier New American Film School, honoring the first Black man and Afro-Bahamian actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor (for his 1963 performance in “Lilies of the Field”) and the oldest living recipient of that Oscar.
Poitier’s moniker will only enhance Mesa’s already high credibility in leveraging the ASU campus into a job generator, Mayor John Giles said.
“We are already getting economic benefits from the ASU building,’’ Giles said. “ASU gives a lot of confidence to people that it is a wise investment to come downtown.’’
A trailblazing actor who starred in several films highlighting the evils of racism, Poitier, 93, starred in numerous noteworthy films, including “Raisin in the Sun” (1961), “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night” (both 1967).
Giles said he is thrilled the film school is being named after Poitier, underscoring Mesa’s diversity.
Kiana Marie Sears, president of the East Valley NAACP and a Mesa Public Schools Governing Board member, also applauded ASU’s move.
“I think this is an amazing thing ASU is doing,’’ Sears said. “I think he’s a very historic and iconic person,’’ serving as an ambassador for civil rights at the height of the movement in the 1960s.
“He’s the symbol of someone who built bridges,’’ Sears said.
Giles said the imminent opening of the ASU building gives some extra incentive to businesses that might have been interested in downtown but “didn’t want to be first in line.”
Shortly after his election as mayor in 2014, Giles said he met with ASU President Michael Crow and sought to lure the university to downtown Mesa, hoping for a transformation similar to what it did in downtown Phoenix.
Giles said Crow told him that Metro Light Rail is the key factor, allowing students to move easily and cheaply between ASU’s main Tempe campus and any new Mesa facility – just as students do today between the Tempe and Phoenix campuses.
Giles said the city and ASU are anticipating that additional facilities beyond the $63.5 million building now under construction will be built.
City officials anticipate a summer 2022 grand opening while ASU officials said during the Poitier Film School announcement that it will be more like fall 2022.
Giles said Crow told him, “when we come to your downtown, we will change it permanently,’’ with a large number of students suddenly injecting a new buzz into the area.
Several new restaurants already have opened downtown and multiple projects bringing hundreds of apartments are already under construction.
Moreover, industries beyond downtown are “fascinated with the technology ASU is advancing,’’ such as augmented reality, Giles said, noting, “All of it has applications in every industry you can imagine.’’
“This is going to grow exponentially going forward,’’ Giles said.
While the newly-renamed film school’s home is in Mesa, it will be linked as well to the Tempe campus and a newly facility in the renovated Herald Examiner building in Los Angeles, making an important connection to the mecca of the American film industry.
Annie DeGraw, an ASU spokeswoman, said the Mesa facility will remain ASU at Mesa City Center, while the LA building will be known as ASU LA Center. She said both buildings will have signage identifying the Sidney Poitier New American Film School.
She said that Michael Burns, the vice chairman of Lionsgate Entertainment, one of the world’s largest film and media companies, has a close working relationship with Crow.
Burns, an ASU alumnus, helped connect Poitier and his family with the university to negotiate the naming rights deal, DeGraw said.
Giles said he spent the weekend watching some of Poitier’s legendary performances. He said Poitier will have a large presence inside the new building.
Giles recently announced that he will seek the development of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Mesa, a move that was welcomed by long-term advocates.
“Mesa is a very diverse city. About 1/3 of our city is Hispanic,’’ with a substantial Black population, he said. “A lot of the people coming to school here will be diverse. We want this facility to be an inspiration to them.’’
Among the Sidney Poitier Film School’s goals is to improve diversity in the film industry – not only in front of the camera but behind it.
“Our society has been moved forward by film and television,’’ said Beverly Poitier-Henderson, one of Sidney Poitier’s three daughters who spoke at the digital unveiling Jan 25, which also featured Crow, Stephen J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and several students.
Poitier’s daughters, Sydney Tamila Poitier and Anika Poitier, described how their father is honored to have his name attached to the film school, combining his passions for advancing education and civil rights.
Poitier himself did not appear and turned down interview requests, but such stars as singer Harry Belafonte and actor John Lithgow made cameo appearances praising him.
“You see a lot more interracial couples and gay people. It’s not fun and games. You are shaping the world,’’ Poitier-Henderson said.