Sidney Poitier's 20 most notable films
Sidney Poitier, the actor whose groundbreaking movie roles in the 1950s and 1960s opened doors for generations of Black performers and brought him a history-making Best Actor Academy Award for Lilies of the Field — the first ever given to a Black man — died Friday. He was 94 years old. Here, author Mark Harris (Mike Nichols: A Life) remembers 20 of Poitier's most notable films.
No Way Out (1950)
Poitier got his first Hollywood break playing the only Black intern in a white urban hospital who has to treat a racist criminal (Richard Widmark) in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's liberal message movie/film noir hybrid. At 22, he's too young for the role, but he inhabits it with real assurance, and many of the building blocks of the archetypal Poitier character — cool under fire, solitary and exceptional, simmering but never boiling over, and ready and willing to teach all doubters a lesson by being better than everyone around him — are already in place here.
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
He's "a little brighter and a little smarter than the rest of those guys," teacher Glenn Ford observes of the teenaged delinquent Poitier plays in this breakthrough hit (no wonder — he was 28!). Working under the tough conditions that were typical of the time (he was isolated from the rest of his acting "classmates," who stayed in a whites-only hotel during production), Poitier delivers a sharp, focused performance as a kid whose uncertain allegiances and personal code of honor — which way will he go? who will he side with? — drive Richard Brooks' hit melodrama toward its climax.
Edge of the City (1957)
All but forgotten now, Martin Ritt's early film was called "a milestone in the screen presentation of an American Negro" by Variety. It's not, but it is at least a skillful variation on some themes established a couple of years earlier by On the Waterfront, with Poitier and John Cassavetes as two longshoremen headed for tragedy. As in many of his early films, Poitier doesn't get the chance to make this credit-to-his-race character much more than a tool for the white guy's eventual redemption, but here he's at least permitted a home life (Ruby Dee plays his wife) and a couple of good scenes in which race isn't an issue.
The Defiant Ones (1958)
Acting opposite Tony Curtis, Poitier made history — not for the last time — by scoring a Best Actor Oscar nomination, the first ever for a Black man, in Stanley Kramer's tight, energetic thriller about two escaped convicts on the run who, shackled together at the wrists, need to trust and help each other in order to survive. Today it may read as a heavy-handed (literally) racial parable, but it was a sensation at the time, and the dynamic sequence in which the two men must cross a raging river together, their arms held high above the currents in bondage-turned-brotherhood, yielded one of the most iconic poster images in 1950s American film.
Porgy and Bess (1959)
Poitier didn't want to star in Otto Preminger's adaptation of the great Gershwin opera, feeling that its slangy depiction of the impoverished residents of Catfish Row was patronizing and "an insult to Black people"; backed into a corner and threatened with losing the chance to make The Defiant Ones, he decided to take the role opposite Dorothy Dandridge (the singing for both stars was dubbed) at what he later called "the most dangerous crossroads of my career." The resulting film was neither as bad as he feared nor as good as admirers of the opera would have hoped; the Gershwin estate disliked it, however, and it has long been out of circulation.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
After The Defiant Ones, Poitier consolidated his stardom by returning to New York to take the lead role in the Broadway debut of Lorraine Hansberry's play about a struggling family pinning its dreams on an insurance check. The brilliant cast, which also includes Ruby Dee (working with Poitier for the fifth time), Claudia McNeil, and Diana Sands, was reassembled for the movie, one of Poitier's very best. Cast against type — Walter Lee is hotheaded, impulsive, impatient, reckless — Poitier uses his musical voice and kinetic, oddly stylized sense of movement to give the character a kind of unstable energy that makes his plight all the more wrenching.
Lilies of the Field (1963)
You might need a spoonful of vinegar to swallow this sugary confection, a micro-budgeted comedy in which Poitier plays a saintly wanderer who stops to help a convent full of German, Austrian and Hungarian nuns build a chapel in the Arizona desert. (What are they doing there? What is he doing there? Who knows?) But audiences back then felt uplifted by seeing how the potentially incendiary premise of a Black man stumbling upon a group of white nuns could be played for laughs and sweetness. "The screen overflows with enough brotherhood… to make even the kindest spectator retch," complained Newsweek. But, deploying every ounce of his charm, Poitier shattered a major barrier, winning the Best Actor Oscar Raisin should have brought him two years earlier.
A Patch of Blue (1965)
Poitier described himself as "at my wits' end" when he finished Guy Green's interracial quasi-romance in which he plays the rescuer of a young, blind, uneducated white woman (Elizabeth Hartman) who has been virtually held hostage by her drunken racist mother (Shelley Winters, playing to the back row in an Oscar-winning performance) — and, oh yeah, the girl doesn't know he's Black. Even critics back then complained that the mawkish script stacked the deck ludicrously, but Poitier does what he can with another secular-saint role, and Patch was a major success that finally and belatedly caused Hollywood to realize that maybe this guy could actually sell tickets.
The Bedford Incident (1965)
For much of his career, Poitier found himself in a double bind — the roles he was offered were either defined entirely by race, or bent over so far backwards to ignore race completely that the results could seem slightly bizarre — as in this no-frills variation on The Caine Mutiny and Fail-Safe, in which Poitier plays a journalist assigned to a virtually all-white Navy destroyer whose creepily autocratic captain (Richard Widmark) may be headed into conflict with a Russian submarine. Poitier always liked working with Widmark, and both stars give steady performances, at least until the script torpedoes all credibility.
To Sir, With Love (1967)
In 1967, three movies turned Poitier, however briefly, into the biggest box-office star in Hollywood. This was the first and slightest of them, a clever inversion of Blackboard Jungle in which he went back to high school, this time as a teacher who instructs, advises, cajoles, exhorts and eventually wins over a group of surly but remarkably unscary British adolescents. Columbia didn't even want to make the movie, and was flabbergasted, along with the rest of the industry, when adoring teenagers turned it into Poitier's biggest hit yet; his magnetism and gentle authority on screen made him the man a generation of kids wanted at the head of their homeroom.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
If you had to pick just one film that represents all of Poitier's strengths, it would likely be Norman Jewison's taut, lean, expertly constructed thriller about Virgil Tibbs, a Black Philadelphia police offer stranded in a racist Southern backwater trying to help the white locals solve a murder. Challenged and inspired by Rod Steiger's deep-dish Method acting as the redneck police chief, Poitier found new and fascinating ways to calibrate his hauteur, wariness and suppressed anger in a superb performance that he ranked among his own favorites.
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)
As the well-heeled San Francisco liberals who have to fight to live up to their own principles when their daughter brings home a Black doctor and announces that he's about to become their son-in-law, Spencer Tracy (in his last performance) and Katharine Hepburn get the lion's share of laughs and tears in this blockbuster comedy, a corny crowd-pleaser that was already dated the day it opened. For much of the movie, Poitier is little more than a prop, but he fulfills his straight-man duties expertly and, signaling his reactions with ever-so-slight changes of expression, gives a surprisingly skilled light-comedy performance as the (almost) unflappable prospective groom.
For Love of Ivy (1968)
Poitier used his growing box-office stature to fulfill a longstanding dream to make a romantic comedy in which he would actually get to court an African-American woman instead of being paired with a white actress in yet another sexless role. The result was this disappointingly half-hearted comedy-drama about a white family's maid (singer Abbey Lincoln, shooting off lively sparks of temper) who's wooed by a decent if semi-shady businessman (Poitier). The cast is good (Carroll O'Connor and Beau Bridges also appear), but the script is oddly sitcomish, as if the writers of The Brady Bunch had suddenly discovered racial politics.
They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971)
After the Oscar-winning success of In The Heat of the Night, producer Walter Mirisch hoped to turn Poitier into "the Black James Bond" by producing two sequels in which he reprised the role of Virgil Tibbs. Unfortunately, both films are cheap and shoddy, violate the character's history (Tibbs suddenly, mysteriously, acquires a wife and kids and is now a veteran San Francisco detective), and offer none of the original's craftsmanship; they're interesting primarily as examples of how ill-at-ease Poitier seemed in the newly minted milieu of militant rhetoric and urban upheaval. Suddenly, for the first time, he seems out of touch.
Uptown Saturday Night (1974)
In the 1970s, when Poitier started working as a director, he was trying to stay one step ahead of Blaxploitation action films, which he hated. His solution was to develop a new genre — a kind of amiable, loose, by-us-for-us style of urban comedy that proved to have enormous crossover appeal and the influence of which has resonated for decades, straight through the films of Ice Cube. Uptown Saturday Night is the first of several movies in which Poitier teamed with Bill Cosby (here, they play buddies who try to steal back a winning sweepstakes ticket from the hoods who robbed them), and it's lively, shaggy fun. Followed by an even more successful almost-sequel, Let's Do It Again (1975).
The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)
Poitier was always compelled by South Africa; it's the subject of one of his first movies, Cry the Beloved Country, one of his last, Mandela and De Klerk, and also of this reasonably effective thriller about a cache of diamonds in the era of apartheid. He plays a recently freed political prisoner who, while on the run with a British engineer (Michael Caine), tries to get to Johannesburg while evading a corrupt military police force led by scene-stealer Nicol Williamson. With some notable exceptions, Poitier rarely got to work with A-list white actors, and he and Caine produce an effortless chemistry that will make you wish they had a stronger script to build upon.
A Piece of the Action (1977)
By any conventional standards this movie is a mess, but as a representation of what was on Poitier's mind in the 1970s, it's one of his most fascinating films. Clocking in at well over two hours, this meandering criminal caper reteams Poitier with Cosby; they're two thieves who are blackmailed by a retired cop (James Earl Jones) into working with ghetto teens in a job-placement community program. Cue a whole different movie — To Sir Without Much Love — that seems to be embedded in the middle of this one, as streetwise Black kids face off with "bougie" counselors in scenes that seem crafted by Poitier (who also directed) as a head-on response to critics who charged that he was out of touch with the Black community.
Shoot To Kill (1988)
When roles dried up and his passion waned, Poitier simply stopped acting, ceding the screen to a new generation of Black talent. By the time he stepped in front of the cameras again to make a thriller about a big-city FBI agent who joins forces with suspicious mountain-dweller Tom Berenger to track a killer into the wild, he'd been away for eleven years. At 60, Poitier was suddenly craggy and forbidding, but hardly rusty; if anything, he'd learned how to deploy his rigid severity to comic effect. Audiences were glad to have him back, and he returned to steady acting work until making his final film in 2001.
Separate But Equal (1991)
After he ended his long acting hiatus in the late 1980s, Poitier did much of his strongest work for television. In some ways, though, little had changed over the last 40 years; when this two-part TV movie about Thurgood Marshall and the Brown vs. Board of Education decision first aired, some critics couldn't notice anything but the actor's skin color, complaining that he was insensitively cast as the lighter-skinned Marshall. Admittedly, the two men look nothing alike, but it's the shading of Poitier's performance, not his skin, that will stay with you.
Mandela and De Klerk (1997)
The crowning role of Poitier's later years came in a made-for-cable movie that showcases the depth of his talent and serves as a painful reminder of how few opportunities he was given (or took) to stretch himself. In this efficiently wrought drama about the last months of Nelson Mandela's imprisonment, Poitier resists every temptation, and they must have been considerable, to create a hagiography. Alternately warm and imperious, charming and brusque, politically shrewd and prideful, his portrait of Mandela is one of the richest and most complex performances of his career.
Comments have been disabled on this post