Top Ten Sidney Poitier Films
Sidney Poitier: the man who paved the way for such well-respected actors as, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. He changed the perception of "black Americans" both within the film industry and without, with his commanding presence and daring film choices. Defying conventional wisdom at the time concerning actors of color, Sidney Poitier became a leading man, a major box office draw, and even an Academy Award winner. All this done in a time when race relations were at their most volatile.
Careful to retain his dignity onscreen, Sidney made himself a virtual ambassador of the civil rights movement in the 60's, choosing roles in films that had something to say. All the while, keeping a constant awareness of the responsibility he had as a role model for a generation. Sidney always understood the power he had as a star and used it carefully to inspire the change he wished to see in the world. And in many ways, he succeeded. So, read on and witness the work of a true innovator and a wonderful human being.
FYI: I chose the order of my Sidney Poitier top ten by considering each film's importance in Sidney’s overall career, the size/importance of his role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like, IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Sidney Poitier film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
1. “IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT” (1967) –
Possibly the most historically relevant movie of Sidney Poitier’s career, this Academy Award-winning film, also, features the character that would come to define Sidney’s screen personae. Based on the novel by John Ball and directed by Norman Jewison, In the Heat of the Night stars Sidney as Virgil Tibbs, a homicide detective passing through Mississippi who is, unexpectedly, pulled into the murder investigation of a prominent citizen. But, by getting involved, Virgil, also, becomes unavoidably embroiled in the heated racial tensions of the 1960’s Deep South. The investigation, also, forces Virgil to work opposite Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), a Southern cop with deeply ingrained prejudices. Although this film revolves around a solid murder mystery, it’s the relationship between these characters that you'll remember best. Sidney gives a powerful and iconic performance as Virgil Tibbs while, Rod Steiger earned an Oscar for his nuanced portrayal of the surprisingly complex Chief Gillespie. Behind the scenes, due to the very real racial tensions present in the South at the time, it was, actually, too dangerous to film In the Heat of the Night south of the Mason-Dixon line. So, Sparta, Illinois served as small town Mississippi for most of the film. The shoot made the dangerous trip to Tennessee for only one scene, taking place at a cotton plantation. Still as riveting today as it was the day it premiered, In the Heat of the Night, is a really powerful film and a true classic.
2."A RAISIN IN THE SUN” (1961) –
Based on the award-winning play by Lorraine Hansbury, A Raisin in the Sun follows the trails and tribulations of the Youngers, a poor family living in the low-rent district of Chicago. Living within the family’s crowded apartment are Walter Lee (Sidney), his wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee), his son, Travis, his sister, Beneatha, and the family's matriarch, "Mama" Lena (Claudia McNeil). When Lena, suddenly, comes into a large amount of money (thanks to her late husband’s life insurance policy), she hopes to use it create a better life for her children and grandchild. However, forces beyond her control are in danger of destroying Lena's dreams for the future, coming both from within the family and without. A Raisin in the Sun is unusual for a film adaptation, in that it stars the entire Broadway cast. And it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing these parts. In the original stage version, both Sidney and co-star, Claudia McNeil, earned Tony nominations for their performances. Watching the film, it’s easy to see why. Sidney gives a powerful and moving performance as Walter Lee, a man dissatisfied with his life, but with no clear concept of how to change it. And Claudia McNeil will, absolutely, break your heart as the strong and selfless Lena. The film is, also, notable for featuring Louis Gossett Jr. in his film debut and a memorable appearance by John Fiedler (best known as the voice of Piglet in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films). In a nutshell, this stunning drama is a movie that demands to be seen. It leaves you with the message that no matter what adversity you may face, hope and family can still give you the strength to survive.
3.“A PATCH OF BLUE” (1965) –
One of my favorite Sidney Poitier movies, A Patch of Blue is adapted from Elizabeth Kata’s novel, Be Ready with Bells and Drums. This beautiful romantic drama is told from the point-of-view of Selina, a lower-class blind girl continuously being taken advantage of by her prostitute mother, Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters in an Oscar-winning performance). Sidney plays Gordon Ralfe, a well-educated man of the middle-class who meets Selina in the park one day. He, quickly, befriends Selina, treating her with the kindness and respect her family withholds. This opens up a whole new world to the sheltered girl and she soon finds herself falling for Gordon. But, there’s one complication in their relationship that Selina is not yet aware of: Gordon is “black”, while she is “white”. Aware of this impediment, Gordon tries his best to keep his relationship with Selina platonic, but despite his best efforts, he just might be falling for her, as well. Made right in the middle of the civil rights movement, A Patch of Blue very literally explores the timeless notion that love is blind. Sidney has never been more charming than he is in this equally charming film. If you weren’t in love with him before, you will be after watching this movie.
4.“THE DEFIANT ONES” (1958)–
Directed by the great Stanley Kramer, The Defiant Ones represents the first time Sidney received above the title (i.e. star) billing. This was thanks to co-star Tony Curtis’ insistence, for he believed that Sidney was so good in the film that it would’ve been absurd for him not to be billed accordingly. When you watch the film, it’s impossible to argue. Both Sidney and Curtis earn their star status in this moving drama, playing two extreme characters that, somehow, never become simplistic archetypes. Noah Cullen (Sidney) and John "Joker" Jackson (Curtis) are two escaped cons, forced to work together due to the chain that binds them at the wrist. The situation isn’t made any easier by the fact that both men harbor great racial prejudices against each other. But as they continue to avoid capture, Joker and Cullen discover that it's more than just a chain that ties them together. Interestingly, The Defiant Ones was, originally, intended to star Sidney opposite Marlon Brando. Tony Curtis was only given the opportunity to step in when Sidney’s role in Porgy and Bess forced the production to change its original schedule. As a result, Curtis gives one of his best performances as "Joker" and he and Sidney's chemistry virtually carries the emotional weight of the film. Fans of movies like, The Shawshank Redemption will most likely enjoy this one.
5. “GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER” (1967) –
A surprising box office success when it was first released (even in the South), this hopeful film touches on the prejudices towards interracial couples that existed in the ‘60’s (and ghosts of which still exist in certain areas today). The story begins with young Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) returning home, unexpectedly, to announce to her parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) that she’s getting married to a man she met over vacation. Her fiancé, John (Sidney), is highly educated, successful, and everything a parent could possibly want in a son-in-law. There’s only one problem: John is “black”, Joanna is “white”, and this is 1967. Joanna is utterly convinced that her liberal parents will have no objections at all about her husband’s race, but when faced with the ultimate expression of equality, her parents are forced to reevaluate their worldview and discover if they’re really as open-minded as they've always claimed to be. Featuring Tracy and Hepburn in their last screen appearance together, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is a perfect showcase for the two legendary performers' chemistry and talents. Unfortunately, Tracy never got a chance to see the finished film, dying only 17 days after filming wrapped. His moving final speech is one that stays with you. Sidney is, also, given his chance to shine towards the end of the film, as John’s composure, finally, breaks in a heated confrontation with his own father. Arguably, the movie’s only weak point is that Joanna sometimes seems a little too bubbly for a dignified man like John. But, of course, that's a minor complaint for a lovely movie starring three iconic stars at their very best.
6. “LILIES OF THE FIELD” (1963) –
Based on the novel by William Edmund Barrett, this is the movie that, finally, won Sidney his well-deserved Oscar for Best Actor (making him the first man of African descent to receive the honor). In the film, he plays Homer Smith, an ordinary working man who stumbles upon a small convent of East German nuns while passing through Arizona. The nuns offer Homer a couple of odd jobs and unable to refuse the money, he agrees. But, soon, Homer begins to realize that the nuns really have no intention of, actually, paying him. In fact, the nuns believe that Homer has been sent from God to build them a chapel. Once Homer discovers this, he, immediately, tries to leave, but the convent’s forceful Mother Superior, Mother Maria, continually convinces him to stay. And the longer Homer stays, the more he finds himself capable of accomplishing tasks he never dreamed possible. Filmed on location in Tucson, Lilies of the Field succeeds in being simultaneously funny and inspiring as you watch the practical Homer clash with the stubborn and ever-faithful Mother Maria. It's, also, a great opportunity to witness Sidney showing off some of his comedic skills, a side of him not as frequently seen on screen.
7. “SHOOT TO KILL” (1988) –
Marking Sidney’s first acting role in over a decade, Shoot To Kill offered Sidney a rare chance to play an action hero at the age of 60. And Shoot To Kill is an adventure thriller that hits the ground running. Sidney stars as FBI agent, Warren Stantin. When Stantin is assigned to a high profile kidnapping, he agrees to meet the kidnapper in a secluded place to deliver the ransom. But, the drop doesn’t go as planned and the kidnapping soon becomes a murder. With the killer now making his escape through the forests at the edge of the U.S./Canadian border, Stantin is forced to enlist the help of mountain guide, Jonathan Knox (Tom Berenger). Knox has his own reasons to pursue the murderer since his girlfriend, Sarah (Kirstie Alley), has just become the killer’s most recent hostage. Knox knows the forest well, but Stantin is a tried and true city boy and the two, immediately, clash. But due to the dangers facing them from the elements, as well as the killer, himself, the mismatched pair are forced to rely on each other to survive. A really fun ride, this film follows along very much the same vein as the popular Lethal Weapon film series. But, it, also, has the added bonus of some convincing red herrings and a great plot twist that helps keep you on your toes.
8. “TO SIR, WITH LOVE” (1967) –
Don't be surprised if the concept of this film starts to sound familiar. Virtually, every film that centers on the relationship between a teacher and his students has borrowed aspects from this uplifting movie. Possibly, the only other film that has had as much influence on this little sub-genre is the one in which Sidney Poitier made his film debut, Blackboard Jungle. But while in Blackboard Jungle Sidney played one of the unruly students, in To Sir, With Love, he sits on the other side of the desk. He plays Mark Thackeray, who, reluctantly, takes a teaching job in East London when he has trouble finding a job in his chosen field of engineering. After he meets his rebellious students of the East End, Mark fully believes that he’ll never be able to help them become anything but the hooligans they already are. But, when he, suddenly, makes a conscious decision to treat his students like adults, Mark may have just found the key to getting through to these stubborn teens. Based on the novel by E.R. Braithwaite, To Sir, With Love was an unexpected and massive hit when it first premiered. The film’s title song (sung by pop singer and co-star, Lulu) even reached number one on the Billboard pop charts. Unfortunately, To Sir, With Love is, probably, the Sidney Poitier film that has aged the least well, thanks to the students’ self-proclaimed “hipness” (being “hip” and “trendy” never ages particularly well). But, that said, the emotions of the piece still ring true and anyone with an affinity for ‘60’s fashion/culture will love this authentic look at swinging London at its height.
9. “THE BEDFORD INCIDENT” (1965) –
In a lot of ways, The Bedford Incident is the ultimate Cold War film. A tense military drama, it focuses on the dangers of living in a world run by anxiety and fear. The film is based on the book by Mark Rascovich, which is, itself, based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (Those familiar with the story of Moby Dick are bound to see similarities, immediately). Sidney plays the part of Ben Munceford, a well-respected journalist who has hitched a ride on a Navy destroyer (the U.S.S. Bedford) in order to write an expose on Navy life. But, Munceford’s real interest lies in the ship’s captain, Captain Finlander (Richard Widmark). Although the U.S. is no longer at war, Finlander runs his ship as if it were still on active duty, keeping his crew tense and ready for action at all times. So, when a Russian sub is spotted illegally cutting through Greenland waters, Finlander, immediately, makes it his quarry. He hunts the sub obsessively, virtually ignoring all messages coming from higher up on the chain of command. As tensions rise, Munceford and the other members of the crew begin to realize how dangerous this situation is becoming. But, it only gets worse as the captain pushes those around him closer and closer to the breaking point. This almost claustrophobic film offers a terrifying look at how easily lives can be thrown away when obsession and power collide. It will keep you on the edge of your seat until its final moments, as the pulsating sound of the ship's sonar rings maddeningly in your head.
10. “LITTLE NIKITA” (1988) -
Little Nikita is the first of two films that Sidney would, eventually, make with cult icon, River Phoenix (the other being Sneakers). Phoenix stars as Jeff Grant, an ordinary high school student who has made plans with his friends to join the Air Force after graduation. But, when FBI agent Roy Parmenter (Sidney) puts Jeff through a routine background check, he discovers something that even Jeff doesn't know. The boy’s parents may, in fact, be KGB sleeper agents. But, even that is not the most dangerous piece of information Roy has to tell Jeff. A rogue agent, known as Scuba, is currently hunting KGB sleeper agents. So, if what Roy suspects is true, Jeff and his family are in now in greater danger than anyone could have realized. Although Little Nikita’s plot can sometimes move a little too fast for its own good, it's still an enjoyable thriller with high-quality performances. River Phoenix, in particular, shows why he garnered such a loyal following at the time and even manages to steal a few scenes from Sidney. (Fans of Grey’s Anatomy, Boston Public or Eli Stone may, also, enjoy seeing the always memorable Loretta Devine in her appearance as Jeff’s principal and Roy’s love interest).
HONORABLE MENTION: “PORGY AND BESS” (1959)
Directed by Otto Preminger (of Carmen Jones fame) and co-staring the lovely Dorothy Dandridge, this haunting musical is based on the legendary American opera by George and Ira Gershwin (which itself was based on the novel, Porgy, by Dubose Heyward). The film features Sidney in a very rare musical role but, much like the similar Carmen Jones, most of the vocals in the film were dubbed by operatic professionals (Sidney’s were dubbed by Robert McFerrin). The sheer talent present in this film is staggering. Along with Sidney and Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll and Sammy Davis, Jr. all make appearances in the film. Set in Charleston in the 1900’s, Porgy and Bess stars Dandridge as the titular Bess, a woman with a shady past trying to escape from an abusive relationship. Bess soon seems to find relief in the arms of the town “cripple”, Porgy (Sidney). However, the other townspeople disapprove of the relationship and with Bess’ former drug-dealer, Sportin’ Life (Davis, Jr.), still making his presence known, Porgy and Bess’ romance is, severely, threatened. So when Bess’ abusive ex-boyfriend, suddenly, reappears, it just might be the thing that ruins the lovers’ last chance at happiness. Considered by some to be an overlooked masterpiece, this dark musical is rarely seen today due to the Gershwin and Goldwyn estates’ claim of “dissatisfaction” with the finished film. The irony of this statement is that the Library of Congress, recently, chose to include Porgy and Bess in the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” film. Between the differing opinions, I would tend to side with the Film Registry, but, hopefully, one day Porgy and Bess will be released to the general public, so that we may all get the chance to form our own opinions of this iconic musical.
- Porgy and Bess (1959) - Overview - TCM.com
Overview of Porgy and Bess, 1959, directed by Otto Preminger, with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., at Turner Classic Movies
And if you would like to learn more about the groundbreaking Sidney Poitier, I recommend his two inspirational autobiographies, The Measure of A Man and Life Beyond Measure: Letters To My Great-Granddaughter.
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