Sidney Poitier was an iconic cinematic legend and artistic giant. In a career which spanned over 60 years, Poitier found success in some of Hollywood’s most memorable films like Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Defiant Ones (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), To Sir, with Love (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and winning an Oscar for his work in the 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. Poitier was a versatile actor who brought a regal majesty to his roles, imbuing a stylish dignity to the parts; but he also had a sly sense of humor which he was able to bring to his lighter work. In the 1960s, whilst cities across the USA were seeing protests, rebellions, and tumult, Poitier was enjoying his greatest success, becoming a major box office draw. Along with his career as an actor and director, Poitier used his celebrity to draw attention to important causes, the Civil Rights in particular. At the height of his fame, he was an outspoken advocate for racial equality and he was one of the few widely popular film stars of Hollywood during the 1960s.
Though his screen persona and inherent elegance would sometimes limit him to roles that relied on his sleek looks and gravitas, he was able to transcend even the most idealized roles by giving them more depth, humanity, and tone than the scripts would have; Poitier was in an unenviable position: as being one of the few Black film superstars, he was saddled with a responsibility to be everything to everyone. It was unfair. White audiences didn’t want him to be a three-dimensional human being and Hollywood wanted him to be an emblem (and would treat him as a token at times), but Poitier overcame these constricts and created a filmography that is rich and varied.
Top 10 The Highlights of Sidney Poitier
Blackboard Jungle (1955) – an explosive and then-innovative film that looked to urban blight and racial tensions that arise in an inner-city high school in 1950s New York City. Much of the film’s legacy is wrapped in its unflinching look at the various struggles of city public schools; Blackboard Jungle is also known for its use of rock and roll on its soundtrack. As with most films that look to chronicle the various struggles that befall on the inner-city, Blackboard Jungle is rife with issues, namely a white savior narrative as well as exploitation of trauma. Poitier – in an early performance – plays a troubled teen who starts off as a rough antagonist to the film’s protagonist (Glenn Ford), before eventually growing and developing a truce and an allegiance. As with a lot of his roles, Poitier does deep, empathetic work.
Edge of the City (1957) – an early part of Poitier’s career, Edge of the City is a moving drama that is at-once profound and, yet still has issues that date it. The film is an important of the construction of Poitier’s screen persona – particularly, the perception of his nobility. Edge of the City talks about race and friendship as well as violence and cruelty. The script – written by Robert Alan Arthur – makes Poitier’s character a combination of ideals and norms and is typical of the “issue films” of the 1950s. Director Martin Ritt, a veteran of FDR’s WPA, and an artist who was caught up in the Hollywood Red Scare, put together a film that ticked the boxes of white liberal popular cinematic art of the mid-century. Even though Edge of the City would have a hand in some of Poitier’s casting issues later on, he gives a complex performance, doing wonderful work.
Porgy and Bess (1959) – The tragic musical – composed by George and Ira Gershwin – was brought to the screen by Otto Preminger. The film is an important, if curious, entry in Poitier’s oeuvre, as it wasn’t initially successful and subsequently, it failed to find a home viewing audience as well (substandard copies of the film are available). The script – written by N. Richard Nash, based on the libretto by DuBose Heyward – has a troubled story that includes difficult topics, including rape, poverty, murder, and drug addiction. Though by 1959, the movie musical was about to enter a difficult period in the genre’s history, the stark tragedy of the opera made for a difficult subject for a Hollywood musical. Poitier gives an impassioned performance (despite being dubbed by Met opera star Robert McFerrin) and is matched with the luminous, yet tragic Dorothy Dandridge.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961) – Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark stage drama was made into this important film that featured a searing, explosive performance as the troubled and complex Walter Lee Younger. The play is a pointed look at housing discrimination, economic and racial prejudice, and the importance of human dignity. Hansberry’s work remains a seminal piece of art that shines a much-needed spotlight social conditions that affirm racial and economic inequities. Poitier’s performance is truly magnificent in this film and he does personable work with his costars, Ruby Dee (as his wife, Ruth) and a truly towering Claudia McNeil (as the Younger matriarch, Lena). A Raisin in the Sun poses questions about the choices people are forced to make when they are desperate and in difficult situations and Hansberry refuses to offer pat, easy answers.
Lilies of the Field (1963) – This film won Poitier the Oscar for Best Actor in 1963. The Ralph Nelson film – based on William Edmund Barrett’s novella – is a sentimental story about a young man, Homer Smith (Poitier) who finds himself working with a group of nuns, helping them to build a new chapel. A wary, complicated friendship develops, particularly with Homer and Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), who believes Homer has been sent by God to help. Poitier deserves the Oscar for his performance, which is warm, funny, and deeply humane. Unfortunately, after 60 years, it’s clear that the role is somewhat one-note and reinforces the idea of Black people being dropped on this earth to help and serve others, particularly whites. Homer breezes into the nuns’ lives and because his empathy (as well as pride) is manipulated by the strong-willed Mother Maria, he sticks around to help the group, and then, just as quickly, he disappears after being of use. Lilies of the Field is engaging, mainly because Poitier’s warmth and multi-layered performance.
A Patch of Blue (1965) – like a lot of Poitier’s films, A Patch of Blue is another ‘issue’ film that tackles a topic and does so with a lot drama (though maybe this film can tip a bit into melodrama). Like many of his other roles, Poitier’s Gordon Ralfe is a kind, upstanding individual tasked to help save someone: this time a young, blind woman who is an abuse victim, nearly pushed to prostitution by her monster of a mother. The actor brings an intelligence to the role and though Guy Green’s script packs a lot of bathos to the proceedings, Poitier doesn’t let his work get buried by the seemingly dramatic plot. But what makes A Patch of Blue is the sensitive way in which Green tells this story of interracial friendship, maybe love, and Poitier gives a beautiful performance.
To Sir, with Love (1967) – One of the best high school movies ever, Poitier seems to have closed a loop of sorts, playing a student in a troubled American high school in Blackboard Jungle and in middle age, he plays a teacher at an East London school in To Sir, with Love. It’s not a perfect film – it does dip into sentimentality at times, and there are some predictable beats – but again, Poitier elevates the material with his graceful work. Because of Poitier’s popularity and star power, the film is considered a popular classic and a big hit, one of his most successful movies of his career.
In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Norman Jewison’s atmospheric, tense, and taught drama that has political and social relevance still today, particularly when we look at the relationships between criminal justice, the police, and Black Americans. Poitier is Virgil Tibbs, a talented police officer who is racially profiled in Sparta, Mississippi, but agrees to stay in the town to help the local racist police chief (Rod Steiger in an Oscar-winning performance) solve a murder. Jewison captures a simmering, terrifying Mississippi in which Tibbs is tasked to do his work in a hostile environment, continuously reminded of the town’s antipathy for his presence. It’s a great film that doesn’t aim to show redemption or happy answers about race – instead, it’s a suspenseful thriller that works as a backdrop to social commentary about the corrosive effects of racism and bigotry.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – Director Stanley Kramer was known for his social critique films. For Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer looked to interracial marriage (it’s important to note that during the film’s production, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states). The film is a solid comedy that is notable for being the final pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (who won an Oscar for her work). Poitier is very good in this film – though to be honest, his role is somewhat thin. He was posited as the ideal man with little-to-no flaws, so Poitier has to work hard to make his character interesting and stand out – which he does with some charming aplomb. More so than any other performance of his career, this role relies almost exclusively on his star power and movie star charisma.
For Love Ivy (1968) – Sidney Poitier put together this story and worked with Robert Alan Arthur, with whom he worked on Edge of the City for this romantic comedy that paired him with jazz virtuoso, Abbey Lincoln. The film was another popular hit for Poitier and it was a charming film, far lighter than most of much of his work during the 1960s. It showed that the actor as funny and very appealing; he’s a breath of fresh air.