2022 is not getting off to a great start when it comes to our beloved celebrities. At the very end of 2021, we lost Betty White, and now, at the start of 2022, we lost the great Sidney Poitier (AND The Last Picture Show director, Peter Bogdanovich. AND Bob Saget!). But, while actors like Sidney Poitier had long, fulfilling lives (he made it to 94), it’s still sad to see somebody so beloved and respected go.
That said, the one great thing about art is that Sidney Poitier will live on forever through his films. I know this personally, since I really just started digging into his back catalogue of movies only recently. Covid hit us all differently, and one thing that I did during my time at home was watch every single movie to win Best Picture. And, even though I’d seen Sidney Poitier movies before this, it was his performance in In the Heat of the Night that really made me want to go even deeper into his filmography. So, here are 10 of Sidney Poitier's best movies that cover the span of his enormously influential career, and where to watch them. Rest easy, Mr. Tibbs.
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
Directed by Richard Brooks, Blackboard Jungle is in the Reefer Madness of school movies. What I mean is, it’s super overblown and pretty laughable today with how “tough” the students are, but as an introduction to Sidney Poitier, it’s a pretty good place to start. Glenn Ford stars as a WW2 vet who takes to the classroom and has to deal with the most dangerous enemy…the (then) modern teenager. Sidney Poitier plays one of these students, but even back then, Hollywood knew he was special since he was one of the “born leaders” of the classroom. A black person! In 1955! Wild.
Sidney Poitier is cool in the role, and it kind of reminds me of Lou Diamond Phillips in Stand and Deliver. The movie itself is kind of awful by today’s standards, but if you want to see a very young Poitier, then Blackboard Jungle is the best place to start.
The Defiant Ones (1958)
Poitier was not only the first black actor to win Best Actor. He was also the first to be nominated, and it was for this Stanley Kramer directed adventure film. The story concerns two men on a chain gang—one Tony Curtis, and the other Poitier—who manage to escape and go on the lam as the police search for them. As you’d expect, the two start out as enemies and become friends.
The film has a lot to say about race, and both Curtis and Poitier are masterful in their roles. Poitier would go on to win Best Actor for a later performance, but if you ask me, this is the one that he should have gotten it for.
A Raisin In The Sun (1961)
Directed by Daniel Petrie and starring Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, and of course, Sidney Poitier, A Raisin in the Sun the movie plays very much like the Lorraine Hansberry play it’s based on, which makes sense, because Hansberry wrote the screenplay. The story is about a black family who are about to come into some money after the father’s death, and the difference of opinion on how to spend said money.
Poitier plays the son of the deceased father, and he wants to buy a liquor store with the insurance money, whereas his mother (McNeil) wants to buy a house in a nice neighborhood. Poitier’s character is convincing in a way that few others could handle, and the story benefits from his presence.
Lilies of the Field (1963)
The film that made Sidney Poitier the first black man to win Best Actor, Lilies of the Field, which was directed by Ralph Nelson and co-starred Lilia Skala, is about a handyman (Poitier) who helps build a chapel for some nuns, with the head nun (Skala) being the most demanding. They butt heads in the beginning, but in the end, the nuns come to believe that Poitier’s character is from Providence.
Honestly, while I’m happy that Poitier won an Academy Award, making him the second black person to ever do so (the first was Hattie McDaniel for Gone With the Wind) I’m not sure if it should have been for this role. It’s a pretty hammy performance, and the movie itself isn’t even all that great (the novel is much better). But, if you’re doing a Sidney Poitier marathon, then Lilies of the Field is a must-see.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
In this Oscar-winning film directed by Norman Jewison, Sidney Poitier plays a black detective named Virgil Tibbs who, on his way to taking a train back to Philadelphia, is picked up by the Mississippi police as a suspect to a murder. After the racial mix-up is cleared up, he ends up helping a strong-willed white police chief (Rod Steiger) solve the actual murder. The dynamics of the two characters is the driving force behind this powerful drama.
Sidney Poitier, with one of the most iconic lines in all of cinema (“They call me Mr. Tibbs.”) is a powerhouse in this performance. It was a bold move making the black man the smartest and most capable character in the entire film (and he knows it, no less), and he plays the role with aplomb. One of the most stirring scenes is when he receives a slap from the most powerful man in town, and then slaps the man right back, leading to what I’m sure made for plenty of gasps back in 1967. An excellent movie, and a phenomenal performance; In the Heat of the Night is essential viewing if you want to know Sidney Poitier’s career.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
In what is definitely one of the most quintessentially black-led movies of all time, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is the kind of film that shows just how far we’ve come as a country, but also how much work we still need to do. Directed by Stanley Kramer (again) and co-starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Katharine Houghton, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is what went for a romantic comedy back in the 1960’s.
It’s about a white woman (Houghton) who brings her black doctor fiancé (Poitier) home to meet her Liberal parents, who are just finding out that their daughter’s fiancé is black. At the same time, the black doctor’s parents are just learning that his fiancé is white. Comedy (and drama) ensue.
Honestly, it’s kind of hard to see any other black actor at the time filling this role. Sidney Poitier, who was quite beloved and accepted by 1967, was the kind of actor who you could see being charming and a fine husband no matter the race. It’s a bit of a time capsule, sure, but I suggest you watch it and the not-that-bad remake, Guess Who, back-to-back (even though Ashton Kutcher is no Sidney Poitier) to see just how much times have changed.
To Sir, With Love (1967)
From student in Blackboard Jungle to teacher in To Sir, With Love. This movie is sixties with a capital S. Directed by Shogun novelist, James Clavell, and co-starring Judy Geeson, Christian Roberts, and then musical sensation, Lulu, To Sir, With Love is about an American who takes to teaching in a rough London school and eventually wins over his students.
As a teacher who can relate to some school movies, I try to see myself in Sidney Poitier’s performance. He learns to be calm and to relate to his students, and I always try to do the same. It’s one of the better teaching movies out there, and Poitier is great in the role.
Uptown Saturday Night (1974)
I feel kind of wrong for recommending this action crime comedy that was directed by Sidney Poitier. For one, it’s actually the first part of a trilogy of films (Let’s Do It Again and A Piece of the Action are the sequels, which were also directed by Poitier). But, the other reason is because it co-stars Bill Cosby, and while Cosby was my boy back in the day, it’s hard for me to promote anything that he’s attached to today.
Still, I have to include it since, again, Poitier directed it. The film is about two friends who get robbed when one (Poitier) has a winning lottery ticket in his wallet. The two go off to get the wallet back, and humor and action ensue. What’s great about the film is that the black characters don’t fall into the blaxploitation tropes of that era, and are educated and resourceful. It’s a great film, but please try not to mind the Cosby too much.
The Wilby Conspiracy (1974)
Here’s an interesting one, as Sidney Poitier actually plays sort of an action hero. Directed by Ralph Nelson and co-starring Michael Caine, The Wilby Conspiracy is about a recently released black revolutionary (Poitier), who manages to get embroiled in a conspiracy hours after being released. This puts him on the run with Caine's character, who is the boyfriend to the lawyer who got him released. The story takes place in South Africa during the apartheid-era and Sidney Poitier, I kid you not, kicks some real ass in this movie, which is pretty much just a giant chase.
I wanted to include The Wilby Conspiracy on here since you don’t really hear many people talking about it. Sidney Poitier often played brave characters, but he didn’t often star in what might be considered thrillers. Is it the best film in the world? No, and it gets a little ridiculous at times. But, if we’re covering the man’s work, then I think it’s important to show just how diverse his career actually was.
The Jackal (1997)
Speaking of thrillers, I want to end on Poitier’s final theatrical film, Michael Caton-Jones’ The Jackal. Co-starring Bruce Willis (who is the star attraction), Richard Gere, and Diane Venora, The Jackal is about an FBI Deputy Director (Poitier) who needs the help of a terrorist (Richard Gere, with a laughable accent), to identify what the mysterious Jackal (Willis) actually looks like.
The Jackal is…well, it’s not a great movie. The action isn’t all that engaging and the story itself could be better, but with Poitier’s last theatrical performance as a by-the-numbers enforcer of the law, it’s an interesting conclusion to an otherwise sterling career.
Sidney Poitier will always be remembered for being a man of class and talent. As long as cinema exists, so will Sidney Poitier. We’ll miss you, sir. With love.
Lover of Avatar (The Last Airbender, not the blue people), video games, and anything 90s, he will talk your ear off about Godzilla, so don't get him started.
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