Because it's a legends birthday tomorrow (February 20th), I thought I'd drop a quick list of my top 5 movies starring Sir Sidney Poitier. I fell in love with Sidney in 1996/7, as a young girl watching “To Sir, with Love”, in which he plays the phenomenal teacher Mark Thackeray. Having recently migrated to England, Mark Thackeray reminded me a lot of my dad back home, whom I love so dearly (Check out his awesome post on my blog here), and thus seeing this character as a father figure I was instantly enamoured by his person and hooked to his work. Suffice to say “To Sir, with Love” is on my top 5 list. I realise that they all happen to be from the same decade, I guess there was just something amazing about the swinging 60’s
1. To Sir, with Love (1967)
In his breakout film, Blackboard Jungle, Poitier played an anti-social high school student who clashes with an idealistic teacher trying to establish order. Here, in To Sir, With Love, the roles are reversed and it’s Poitier playing the educator. This time, however, he’s an American dealing with rebellious kids in the rough East End slums of London. Unable to find work as an engineering professor, he takes the secondary school job in the predominantly white neighborhood until he can find something better. But he takes his role seriously and uses unconventional methods to shape the troubled kids into well-behaved young adults, earning their respect and friendship along the way.To Sir, With Love was a sleeper hit for Poitier and marked the beginning of an excellent year that saw him become the top box office star in America
2. Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Reprising his role from the successful 1959 Broadway play, Poitier was the bright, but angry son of a struggling African-American family trying to make good on the American Dream despite their many hardships both outside and inside the walls of their Southside Chicago apartment. But the tight-knit family starts to come apart when their patriarch passes away and his survivors battle for how to spend the insurance money in order to realise their personal dreams. Since the film featured the original Broadway cast, everyone was comfortable in their roles and delivered strong performances. But it was Poitier who stood out as the ambitious Walter Lee Younger.
3. Lilies of the field (1963)
Poitier’s performance as Homer Smith, an aimless handyman who helps a group of nuns in their Arizona farm, far outweighs the film as a whole, which is a rather formulaic story about the importance of a religious life.
It was also one of the few Poitier movies that focused little, if anything on racial issues, which may have helped pave the way toward the actor making history as the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor. Although his performance on screen ranks as the best of his career, this factor no doubt contributed to his win given how differently people viewed race over forty years ago. A breathless and beaming Poitier delivered a short, but sweet acceptance speech and cemented his place in cinema history.
4. In the heat of the night (1967)
Directed by Norman Jewison, In the Heat of the Night offered Poitier his most widely recognized role, Detective Virgil Tibbs, a homicide expert from Philadelphia whose initial arrest as a murder suspect in a backwoods Mississippi town leads to an uneasy partnership with a racist local sheriff (Rod Steiger).
The film was seen as an allegory for the Civil Rights movement, particularly in the scene where a wealthy plantation owner (Larry Gates) slaps Tibbs, only to be immediately slapped himself. Legend has it that Poitier refused to sign onto the film unless his character hit back.
5. A Patch of Blue (1965)
One of the first studio films to deal with interracial romance (or even the possibility of it), A Patch of Blue was a huge hit upon its release, appealing to those looking for both social protest and a smart date movie. Sidney Poitier plays Gordon, a compassionate stranger who befriends a blind white girl named Selina (Elizabeth Hartman). Selina, the next thing to a shut-in, can only judge people by their voices, and Gordon's is unusually patient, kind. Troubles ensue when Selina's abusive mother (Shelley Winters in her second Oscar-winning performance) happens upon the pair during one of their park rendezvous. Ivan Dixon plays Poitier's militant brother, and veteran Wallace Ford appears as Selina's kindly lush of a grandfather. Jerry Goldsmith earned an Oscar nomination for his lilting piano theme, surely one of the simplest, most effective pieces of music to grace a Hollywood film.