Spotlight On: Sidney Poitier
Last week we lost three towering figures in entertainment over the course of three days. TV icon Betty White, legendary filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich, and trailblazing actor Sidney Poitier. Born to a Bahamian family, he travelled to New York as a teenager to get involved in the theater scene and learn the craft of acting at the American Negro Theater. His work caught the attention of legendary Hollywood mogul Darryl Zanuck who began to put the young actor in supporting film roles. Sidney Poitier’s talent and magnetic screen presence soon caught the attention of the right people and his career took off. In an era when African Americans were fighting for the right to be seen and treated with human dignity, Poitier broke ground as a lead actor who always carried himself with dignity and strength. This along with his star power broke down barriers for many others as he blazed a trail becoming one of the greatest actors in movie history. His legacy both as an artist and a trailblazer is undeniable as Sidney Poitier is one of the rare figures to receive a knighthood in Great Britain but also the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States.
Blackboard Jungle (1955): The movie which saw Sidney Poitier breakout as a star saw him play rebellious and rowdy teen Gregory Miller. When the new teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) shows up as white teacher in a diverse inner-city school, Gregory is ready to make his life difficult. Over time he and the tough besieged educator forge a relationship as Richard recognizes the kid’s musical talent. Coming in the rebellious teen film phase of the 50’s Blackboard Jungle stood out as one of the best films of its kind.
The Defiant Ones (1958): Directed by the great Stanley Kramer, Poitier co-stars with his good friend Tony Curtis as Cullen and “Joker”, two escaped convicts chained to each other on the lam. While the two men hate each other over their racial differences the two have to cooperate to evade the sheriff’s posse hunting them down. Their prejudices fade as the two chain gang escapees learn more about each other. The true test of the new friendship between them is when Joker is willing to risk it all to save Cullen from a trap.
Lilies of the Field (1963): Hoping to find work, itinerant construction worker Homer (Poitier) heads West. When his car overheats, Homer seeks water with the only people he can find out in the Arizona desert, a group of European nuns. Recognizing his talents are needed at their convent, Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) convinces him to stay behind under the belief he was sent by God to help built their church. Lilies of the Field netted an embarrassment of award riches including an Oscar and Golden Globe for Sidney Poitier.
A Patch of Blue (1965): Largely confined to her apartment, visually impaired young woman Selina (Elizabeth Hartman) looks forward to her trips to the park as an escape from her vicious prostitute mother Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters). On one of these trips she meets Gordon (Poitier) a smart and soft-spoken man who takes a liking to Selina. Oblivious to his skin color, she falls hard for this man who teaches the sheltered girl how to make it in life. Of course her abusive mother has no intention of Gordon ever interacting with her daughter again. At the time A Patch of Blue caused a great deal of controversy with many theaters refusing to even show it. But now it is recognized as one of Sidney Poitier’s finest films.
To Sir, With Love (1967): Produced in Britain, this film became a critical and commercial hit on both sides of the Atlantic based solely on Sidney Poitier’s star power. Mark Thackeray takes on a job at a secondary school in the East End while he awaits a job in the engineering field. In a role reversal from Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier’s character is now the teacher of an unruly class. His approach is to treat them respectfully as adults and in return they will treat him the same referring to him as either “Mister Thackeray” or “Sir”. As most would expect this leads to him becoming involved in the personal lives of his students, but when the chance to get a big engineering job opens up can he leave it all behind?
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967): By this time in his career Sidney Poitier was a powerful enough talent to comfortably play off of two cinematic titans in Spencer Tracy and Hepburn. The iconic screen couple reunited for the first time since Desk Set ten years prior to play the Drayton’s who are expecting their daughter Joanna (Katharine Houghton) and her new fiancé Dr. John Prentice (Poitier). The couple find themselves caught in the middle as both the Drayton’s and Prentice’s parents have their own oppositions to the couple. Being one of the first movies to depict a positive interracial couple Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner proved to be a groundbreaking picture featuring a stellar cast who all firmly believed in the message of the film.
In the Heat of the Night (1967): In a small Mississippi town a rare murder has occurred and the racist police haul in their prime suspect, an African American (Poitier) they happen to find at the train station. Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) discovers that this man is actually Detective Virgil Tibbs a decorated homicide investigator. A reluctant Tibbs is forced to remain in Sparta, Mississippi to assist Gillespie in finding a killer. Seen by many as Sidney Poitier’s finest film, In the Heat of the Night sees the actor deliver not one but two classic movie moments. His retaliatory slap of a demeaning wealthy white man and his famed line “They call me Mister Tibbs!”. He must navigate not only racial prejudices but also a network of smalltown business corruption. This gritty flick is often hailed as one of the greatest cop movies of all-time spawning two underwhelming sequels and a fan favorite TV series.