Sidney Poitier, who died at 94, was one of the most durable and beloved movie stars of the 20th century. He was also a pioneering Black actor and activist whose efforts to integrate American cinema were intertwined with his attempts to change the country’s racial attitudes through speeches, marches, talk-show appearances, and political campaigns, encouraging multiple generations of activists.
The following selection is not intended to be a complete list of everything Poitier ever did. It’s a biographical timeline of work, showing how Poitier’s image evolved and adapted to suit the times. I hope it will also suggest the outlines of his struggle with the central contradiction of his life: a desire to break down barriers for the next generation of Black artists butting up against a need to appeal to white mainstream audiences at a time (roughly 1950-1974) when there was no Black American commercial cinema to speak of (save for independent work and, toward the tail-end of his stardom, some medium-budget studio pictures that could only exist once the old, racially exclusionary studio system had collapsed).
We begin in the 1950s, when Poitier’s very presence in film was a radical statement, and follow him through the 1960s, when he was the first bankable Black man in movies, as well as a symbol of integration and aspiration, and then continue into the ’70s and beyond, when he loosened up and became a character actor and director and took more idiosyncratic control over his art.
No Way Out (1950)
The film that broke out Sidney Poitier as both a charismatic leading man and an avatar of dignity in the face of white racism, this socially minded thriller from writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) is about the first Black doctor employed at a county hospital. He treats two racist white brothers (Richard Widmark and Harry Bellaver) who got shot while robbing a gas station. Widmark’s character, a frothing Iago type, blames the doctor for his brother’s death during a routine procedure. Produced during the immediate post-World War II period when the U.S. armed forces were being integrated and the civil-rights movement was getting warmed up, Mankiewicz intended the film as a healing bromide that would expose “the absolute blood and guts of Negro hating.” During the next two decades, Poitier would feature similarly in narratives where his character’s rock-solid decency and endless reserves of patience were tested by bigots.
Cry the Beloved Country (1951)
Based on Alan Paton’s novel about apartheid-era South Africa, and directed by Hungarian-born Brit Zoltán Korda (brother of legendary producer-director Alexander Korda), this film was groundbreaking not only for its focus on institutionalized racism in colonial Africa, but for its casting: nearly all of the major characters were Black, including an international array of actors who rarely got to play lead parts in productions this big. In the film, old priest Stephen Kumalo (Canada Lee) goes to Johannesburg to help his troubled sister and her son; Poitier plays Reverend Msimangu, a young priest who helps out. It was the final movie role for Lee, who became an actor and civil-rights activist after a notable career as a boxer. (He was blacklisted and died shortly before he was to appear in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.) His presence here alongside the young Poitier, soon to become one of the most visible faces of the mid-century civil-rights movement, amounts to an unintended passing of the torch.
Cry the Beloved Country is available on DVD.
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
Glenn Ford stars as Richard Dadier, a teacher at a chaotic inner-city high school riven by racial tension and run by an administration in denial about the student body’s discipline issues. Vic Morrow plays the leader of a gang that makes life hell on the new guy and insists that the only school that matters is the streets. Poitier plays Gregory Miller, a secretly sensitive young man that Dadier can reach (he’s musically talented but keeps it to himself). By the end of the movie, Miller sides with Dadier against Morrow and his allies. This was one of many instances in the first half of Poitier’s career where he played a thoughtful outsider who ultimately sides with representatives of white-run institutions, in films that were deeply flawed in many ways, particularly with regard to ideas of class and/or racial dynamics.
Adapted by writer-director Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood) from Evan Hunter’s same-titled novel, the film is a repository of mid-20th-century pop-Freudian ideas about why kids turn to crime (lack of manly but sensitive father figures is one of them; the hero’s name even has “Dad” in it). This is possibly the best-known “youth in trouble” movie from an era when Hollywood was becoming increasingly obsessed with the angst and rebellion of at-risk youth, or “juvenile delinquents,” as they were called then; the theme was revisited in such films as Rebel Without a Cause, The Young Savages, and the original West Side Story. The movie is also notable as the first Hollywood production to use an existing rock-and-roll song in its soundtrack (Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”) and for the vandalism that accompanied some screenings in the United States and Britain, with young viewers going berserk at the sound of the main credits song, destroying the seats and dancing in the aisles. The cities of Atlanta and Memphis banned it entirely.
Edge of the City (1951)
Widely praised for its portrayal of a friendship between a white man and a Black man, this debut feature from young Martin Ritt (Hud, Sounder) stars Poitier as Tommy Tyler, leader of a gang of stevedores who hires and befriends an alienated, cynical drifter, Axel Nordmann (John Cassavetes). The head of another stevedore gang, Jack Warden’s Charlie Malick, is a racist who loathes Alex for choosing to work for a Black man instead of him. Ruby Dee plays Poitier’s loyal and sunny wife. Robert Alan Aurthur (All That Jazz) wrote the script, expanding on his live TV play of the same name, which constituted the final episode of Philco TV Playhouse. It should come as no great shock, given the time period, that things don’t go well for Tommy. The final section of the film is about Axel, who once cared about nobody but himself, taking the fight to Malick, culminating in a final showdown that anticipates the end of the Oscar-winning hit On the Waterfront three years later. Donald Bogle would later call Poitier “a colorless Black” and the film a falsely knowing social document in which whites and Blacks get along because the film presents them as having “no cultural bridges to cross.”
The Defiant Ones (1959)
The prototype for nearly every commercially successful racial brotherhood film that came after, this film from liberal message-maker extraordinaire Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg) stars Poitier as Noah Cullen and Tony Curtis as John “Joker” Jackson, inmates shackled together by a mischievous warden. They try to make their way to freedom after the crash of the prison transport truck in the deep South. The poster image of chained Black and white wrists literalized the simplistic message. As the film goes along, it ladles on Brotherhood of Man imagery, climaxing in an almost Romeo and Juliet–like series of set pieces in which each man risks death to save the other, ending in a tragic bummer of an embrace.
James Baldwin, in The Devil Finds Work, said he was never able to warm to the movie because it ignored realities of American racism as well as root causes. (He also took issue with the film’s avoidance of the obvious homoerotic component of the central relationship, which was blunted by the filmmakers’ decision to make Cullen basically sexless and give Jackson a female love interest, whom he ditches to go save his pal from a death trap.) Nevertheless, The Defiant Ones was acclaimed in its time, with Variety summing up its message as, “What keeps men apart is their lack of knowledge of one another. With that knowledge comes respect, and with respect comradeship and even love.” The movie became a modest box-office success and a pervasive cultural talking point, and cemented Poitier’s popularity as both a screen actor and an icon of racial healing.
Porgy and Bess (1959)
Forever torn between the awkwardness of its problematic origins, makeshift dialect, and lurid story, and the sheer beauty of its music, imagery, and performances, the film of Porgy and Bess adapts the folk opera by George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward as a widescreen, Technicolor epic. Poitier stars as the disabled beggar Porgy, who courts the drug addict Bess (Dorothy Dandridge), girlfriend of local bully Crown (Brock Peters, a looming, booming presence). Sammy Davis Jr. steals the movie in an insinuating supporting turn as the coke-supplying, fancy-gloved, bowler-hatted Sportin’ Life. Worth seeing for its legendary core cast of Black performers, Dandridge’s beauty and star wattage, Otto Preminger’s lush direction, and the rare chance to see the usually dynamic Poitier receding into a character role. Be advised, though, that although the film was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Historic Film Registry, this is considered a “lost” film, as it’s never been available on DVD or streaming, and it’s not known if a decent film print even exists. A poor-quality rip of an apparently unauthorized European DVD is currently available on YouTube.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
A high watermark in the careers of all involved, Poitier included, this is a stirring adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play about the effects of systemic racism and financial struggle on a working-class Black family (climaxing with a still shockingly blunt and personal instance of housing discrimination). Poitier, who helped bring the original Broadway production into existence, reprises his stage role as the patriarch of the Youngers, opposite Ruby Dee (his co-star from Edge of the City) as his wife, Ruth, and Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, and Steven Perry as their children. Sensitively directed by Daniel Petrie (Fort Apache: The Bronx), it showcases Poitier at his peak of easygoing authority and tenderness. As Vulture contributor Odie Henderson wrote in a 2013 appreciation, “Petrie’s version is the closest one can get to seeing the original production, as it brings the entire cast to the screen. This is Poitier’s finest hour as an actor.”
Paris Blues (1961)
One of a handful of excellent (and musically credible) jazz dramas, this film about two American musicians in Paris is another Poitier film that foregrounds interracial friendship, but this one gives a Black leading man a rare (for the 1960s) chance to play a romantic and straightforwardly sexual being. He’s paired here with Paul Newman at maximum smoldering babe-ness. The two romance a couple of visiting American women who are just as fantastic-looking as they are (Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward). Here, Paris’s jazz scene is a hothouse where young expatriate sophisticates mingle and mate and the old animosities mean next to nothing. The main four actors, wrote Armond White in The Resistance, “combat[ed] the all-white iniquities of movie sex.”
Lilies of the Field (1965)
Also known as “the Oscar picture,” this one stars Poitier as a nomadic worker who chances on a group of East German nuns in the Arizona desert who become convinced that he was sent by God to help them build a chapel. Another installment in Poitier’s growing library of films about people from different racial backgrounds coming together to tackle a shared challenge, it goes down easy because the whole thing is just so damned nice, with Poitier playing the sort of semi-mythic yet completely believable character that Gary Cooper used to specialize in. Poitier’s triumph as Best Actor made him the first Black man ever to be nominated for and win that award — and only the second Black actor, period (after Gone with the Wind’s Hattie McDaniel).
A Patch of Blue (1965)
Written and directed by Guy Green, this is literally an “I can’t see color” movie, about a soft-spoken, educated Black man (Poitier) who falls in love with a young white woman (Elizabeth Hartmann) who was blinded by her hateful mother (Shelley Winters). It’s considerably less cloying than it sounds, thanks to the tough milieu (everybody’s struggling, and the heroine’s home life is Dickensian), strong performances, and lively direction that makes the most of a monochrome palette (Green insisted on shooting in black-and-white because it thought it enhanced the film’s themes). The film was nominated for five Oscars, with Hartmann becoming the youngest Best Actress nominee at the time, and Winters winning for Best Supporting Actress. Poitier was shut out, but Oscars wise, he did just fine that year (see above). Despite local censors in Southern states insisting that Poitier and Hartmann’s kisses be lopped out, the movie played widely all over the country and was Poitier’s biggest success up to that point.
To Sir, With Love (1967)
Remembered today mainly for its earworm of a title theme (sung by Lulu), this film about racism in British schools feels like a next-generation revisit of Poitier’s early success, The Blackboard Jungle. He plays Mark Thackeray, an engineer from British Guyana who faces a long wait for word on a plum job he applied for, and decides to pass the time by taking a temporary job as a teacher at a tough, diverse school so riven by racial tension that the previous occupant of his post quit. Poitier once again plays a man who faces all sorts of resistance, including racial animosity, but wins over almost everyone who initially disliked him through his professionalism, intellect, decency, and refusal to give up. As an example of a particular subgenre with pretty ritualized storytelling beats, it’s just about foolproof entertainment, and there are moments dealing with the ingrained racism of the community that still startle in their bluntness. A sequel, 1996’s Peter Bogdanovich–directed To Sir, With Love II, picked up Thackeray 30 years later at the same school, on the eve of his retirement.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
The first in a trilogy of films starring Poitier as Black police detective Virgil Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night continued Poitier’s run of films addressing the racial divide in the United States. Tibbs is waylaid in a backwater Mississippi town after he’s groundlessly arrested during a railroad stopover for the murder of a local industrial tycoon and decides to stick around and help the local yokels solve the case. Rod Steiger plays the head yokel, police chief Bill Gillespie, who initially taunts his Black prisoner-turned-partner but comes to respect his stubbornness, superb police work, and insistence on being treated with respect.
The moment when a deputy slaps Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him right back was not in John Ball’s source novel. It was one of the most electrifyingly political moments in mainstream American cinema in the 1960s, and it marked a turning point in Poitier’s screen image — one that he knew had to arrive as quickly as possible. Poitier later told journalists and historians that he accepted the part only on the condition that Tibbs be able to return the slap.
The film was nominated for seven Oscars and brought home wins for Steiger for Best Actor, Stirling Silliphant for Best Adapted Screenplay, Hal Ashby for Editing, two awards for sound, and Best Picture. It was followed by two sequels, They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! (1971) and The Organization (1971), which had their moments but lacked the elegance, tension, political clarity, and sultry atmosphere of the original.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
The culmination of and farewell to the first phase of Poitier’s Hollywood career, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is an amiable but flaccid farce about two upper-middle-class people — Poitier’s widowed Black doctor and Katherine Houghton’s much younger white socialite — who fall in love. They seek the blessings of their respective parents (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Beah Richards and Roy E. Glenn Sr.) who, through a series of contrivances, come together at the eponymous meal. Although the movie’s title instantly became a synonym for square liberal Hollywood pablum, and intensified a backlash that had been building against Poitier’s screen persona, the film was a crowd-pleasing hit. The movie was remade in 2005 as Guess Who?, to no discernible effect, as a comedy vehicle for Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher.
Buck and the Preacher (1972)
Produced during the early years of the so-called blaxploitation period, which saw the release of innumerable politically charged genre pictures aimed at Black audiences, Poitier’s first film as a director showed he could adapt to the times. Where Poitier had often co-starred in salt-and-pepper buddy pictures, Buck and the Preacher paired Poitier’s ex-Civil War soldier Buck and a shady probably-not-really-a-preacher played by musician-actor Harry Belafonte — Poitier’s close friend, partner in political activism, and probably the second most important Black leading man of the middle part of the century. The plot finds Buck guiding a Black wagon train from Louisiana through “Indian territory” up to Kansas without incident, then having to square off against hired white gunmen trying to force the settlers to give up and go back. This is a raucous action Western, every scene and moment expertly judged, and it does a fine job of balancing the more sellable script elements with clear-eyed political commentary.
Uptown Saturday Night (1974)
Directed by and co-starring Poitier, the once-considerable pleasures of this film are unfortunately dimmed by the presence of Poitier’s scene partner, Bill Cosby, who was known for being a pioneering pop-culture fixture rather than a secret felon. If you can get past that, the film offers many archival pleasures. For one, it provides further evidence of Poitier’s sure hand with comedy. The main characters, steel-mill worker Steve Jackson (Poitier) and cabbie Wardell Franklin (Cosby), go on a wild, After Hours–like odyssey to find the thugs who robbed Steve of his wallet, which contained a lottery ticket worth $50,000. This film is sometimes marked as the true progenitor of the wild-and-wooly, big-city buddy-action flick, later epitomized by the 48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon, and Bad Boys franchises. A box-office smash, Uptown spawned two sequels, Let’s Do It Again (1975) and A Piece of the Action (1977).
Stir Crazy (1980)
Poitier’s biggest box-office hit as a filmmaker, the goofy prison comedy Stir Crazy capitalized on his proven track record with buddy comedies and minted a new can’t-miss duo, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, who had previously been paired in Silver Streak (1976). Like many a winning comedy, it’s less of a satisfying, coherent story than a collection of set pieces, but the set pieces are great, from Wilder and Pryor’s initial entrance into the big house (“Don’t want no sheeeeeit!”) to the constant bearlike threat of the gigantic, cue-ball-headed murderer Grossberger, who, in an unexpectedly sublime, reflective scene, turns out to have a lovely singing voice.
Little Nikita and Shoot to Kill (1988)
A thriller about a CIA agent who suspects that a teenage boy’s parents may be Russian spies, and a wilderness thriller about an FBI agent tracking a murderous jewel robber into the Washington wilderness. Neither movie is particularly memorable in and of themselves, but they’re worth checking out for the sight of Poitier, then in his early 60s and returning to acting after more than a decade, proving to everyone that he still had the stuff. His work with River Phoenix (in Little Nikita) and Tom Berenger (in Shoot to Kill) is superb, always hitting exactly the right note of determination, empathy, curiosity, or exasperation, with such precision that you don’t think of him as making choices, but of simply being.
The last great popcorn flick that Poitier acted in, this early-model computer-caper flick from Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams) showcases Poitier’s ability to work within a varied ensemble of scene-stealing professionals, including Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, River Phoenix, Dan Ackroyd, Mary McDonnell, and David Strathairn. A delight from start to finish, it gives Poitier the opportunity to do deadpan comedy, a skill set that, based on his work as a comedy director, he was aces at.