Sidney Poitier: 10 essential films

Sidney Poitier’s turn in the Deep South thriller In the Heat of the Night has won our Black Star public poll, but there are plenty more of the actor’s indispensable performances to discover.

Neil Mitchell
Updated:

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Both on-screen and off, legendary actor, director and diplomat, Sidney Poitier has led a life full of remarkable achievements; from progressive roles in films such as No Way Out (1950) to the ground-breaking Academy Award for best actor and later being appointed the Bahamian ambassador to Japan. Adept at imbuing the multitude of striking characters he played with intelligence, pride and, at times, righteous anger, Poitier’s gravitas and charismatic screen presence led him to the very top of his profession.

With his turn in the Deep South detective thriller In the Heat of the Night topping our Black Star public poll of best black performances of all time, it’s the perfect time to remember this and nine more career pinnacles in which the iconic star made an unforgettable mark.

No Way Out (1950)

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz

No Way Out (1950)

Poitier’s big-screen debut came as Dr Luther Brooks, a recently qualified practitioner and the first African American doctor at a county hospital. When injured sibling hoodlums Johnny and Ray Biddle (Dick Paxton and Richard Widmark) are placed under Brooks’ care, the doctor is subjected to vile racist abuse by Ray. Johnny’s death while undergoing treatment places Brooks and his family in danger as Ray swears revenge, claiming Brooks intentionally killed his brother. So committed was Widmark’s performance as a racist thug that Poitier’s on-screen anger is palpably genuine. Though only billed fourth on the cast list, the young but assured Poitier is clearly co-starring opposite the wild-eyed Widmark.

Edge of the City (1957)

Director Martin Ritt

Edge of the City (1956)

Foregrounding a solid male friendship that bridged the black/white social divide, Martin Ritt’s directorial debut, Edge of the City, saw Poitier co-starring alongside John Cassavetes. As longshoreman supervisor Tommy Tyler, Poitier is full of easy-going charm and life wisdom, which is dispensed with fraternal concern to Cassavetes’ troubled new co-worker Axel Nordmann. Corruption, intimidation and racism – themes that became important to the blacklisted Ritt – raise their ugly head as the insidious prejudices of stevedore gang master Charles Malik (Jack Warden) are squarely focused on Tommy and Axel. That a film highlighting the evils of bullying and bigotry didn’t play in the American south on release is a damning historical footnote.

The Defiant Ones (1958)

Director Stanley Kramer

The Defiant Ones (1958)

The winner of two Academy Awards, Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones marked the first time that Poitier’s name, rightly, appeared above a movie’s title in the credits. Kramer was so eager to cast Poitier as escaped convict Noah Cullen that he delayed the production until the actor was free to accept the role. Shackled to Tony Curtis’s brutish fellow prisoner John ‘Joker’ Jackson, Poitier and his co-star are riveting as they flee, fight and eventually co-operate in a bid to evade recapture. It’s a simple idea executed in taut, gripping fashion as the characters overcome their mutual loathing during their ill-fated bid for freedom.

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Director Daniel Petrie

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Nominated for Best Actor in a Play at the 1960 Tony Awards, Poitier was to be reunited with many of the original production’s cast members for Daniel Petrie’s big screen adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun the following year. Hansberry herself assumed writing duties on the film which follows the African-American Younger family and their efforts to improve themselves in terms of social status, financial stability and employment opportunities. As eldest son Walter Lee, Poitier is on commanding form as a man juggling familial responsibility, pride and the day-to-day struggle to earn a living in a society still divided along racial lines.

Paris Blues (1961)

Director Martin Ritt

Paris Blues (1961)

Based on Harold Flender’s 1957 novel of the same name, Paris Blues was shot on location in the French capital and focused on the lives of two ex-pat jazz musicians: saxophonist Eddie Cook (Sidney Poitier) and trombonist Ram Bowen (Paul Newman). Through their respective romances with two vacationing tourists, Connie (Diahann Carroll) and Lillian (Joanne Woodward), the film’s pointed screenplay highlights the differences regarding racial integration in the US and France at the time. Eddie’s preference for staying in the more open and accepting Parisian society causes heartbreak, as Connie wants the pair to build a life together in what was then racially segregated America.

Lillies of the Field (1963)

Director Ralph Nelson

Lilies of the Field (1963)

The film that led to Poitier becoming the first Bahamian and first African-American to win the Academy Award for best actor was Ralph Nelson’s adaptation of William Edmund Barrett’s 1962 novel Lilies of the Field. Poitier’s groundbreaking and fully deserved Oscar was earned playing the role of Homer Smith, an itinerant worker and former GI who finds himself, initially against his better judgement, building a chapel for a group of East German nuns in the Arizona desert. Conflicts of faith, outlook and temperament eventually dwindle as ‘Schmidt’ completes a Herculean task that provides a place of worship for the poor, mostly Mexican, local townsfolk.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Director Norman Jewison

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967)

A scathing attack on small-town racial bigotry wrapped in a gripping crime narrative, Norman Jewison’s best picture winner saw Poitier play the character he is perhaps best known for: Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Tibbs is drawn into a murder investigation in the fictional Mississippi town of Sparta. Initially the prime suspect, due to his being an African American with a substantial amount of cash on his person, Tibbs’ mere presence in the town is the cause of intense hostility from many locals; his status as a figure of authority even more so. Poitier delivers a magnificent performance in a still vital film.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Director Stanley Kramer

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

In another film driven by race relations in the US, Poitier faced off against the frankly formidable pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Stanley Kramer’s comedy-drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. As widowed doctor John Wayde Prentice Jr, Poitier more than holds his own against the Hollywood veterans, who play the upper-class Draytons, Matt and Christina. The parents of Joanna ‘Joey’ Drayton (Katharine Houghton) have their supposed liberal values tested when John is introduced as Joey’s fiancé on her early return from a holiday in Hawaii. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a box-office hit and provided an early positive on-screen example of an interracial relationship.

To Sir, with Love (1967)

Director James Clavell

To Sir, With Love (1967)

Written, produced and directed by Australian-born novelist, screenwriter and filmmaker James Clavell, To Sir, with Love placed Poitier behind the teacher’s desk as opposed to facing it as he did in Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle (1955) over a decade before. When Poitier’s Mark Thackeray, an unemployed engineer, applies for and gets a teaching position at the tough North Quay Secondary School in inner city London, he soon learns that the pupils’ reputation for disruption is well deserved. Social, racial and class issues are the themes that drive Clavell’s work, with Poitier’s engaging performance of Thackeray as its intelligent, thoughtful heart and soul. 

Buck and the Preacher (1972)

Director Sidney Poitier

Buck and the Preacher (1971)

After two decades appearing in front of the camera, Poitier made his first foray behind it in 1972 with the revisionist western Buck and the Preacher. Poitier’s production was one of the first features to be directed by a person of colour in America, and co-starred its director and another groundbreaking star, singer and actor Harry Belafonte. Poitier’s trail guide Buck clashes with Belafonte’s conman The Preacher, but the pair forget their differences to protect a wagon train transporting former slaves to a new life from vicious bounty hunters. The on-screen revenge exacted by African-American characters on white aggressors represented a marked change from the Hollywood norm.

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