Sidney Poitier’s Life in Films

Image: Archive Photos / Stringer.

Sidney Poitier—actor, director, author and diplomat—passed away peacefully Thursday night at his home in Los Angeles. The first Black actor to receive an Academy Award for Best Actor (for 1963’s Lilies of the Field), Poitier provided an honorable image of people of color in civil-rights era films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, with Love. As a director, he sidestepped the respectability politics of those virtuous roles by loosening up in buddy comedies Uptown Saturday Night, A Piece of the Action and Let’s Do It Again, opposite co-star Bill Cosby. His diplomatic service in the 1990s and 2000s included prestigious ambassadorships.

Born in 1927 to Bahamian farmers in Miami, Florida, Poitier was the youngest of eight sons, and lived in the Bahamas until moving to Miami at the age of 15. Migrating to New York City a year later, he enlisted underage in the Army during World War II before getting himself discharged under the false pretense of mental instability. A successful audition soon won him a place in the American Negro Theater. Though his initial run with the company failed to set the theater world on fire, he garnered enough attention to be offered a Hollywood role in the noir film No Way Out (1950), as a doctor treating a white bigot. His next part, in the classic social commentary film Blackboard Jungle, set him on his way.

An Oscar nomination for 1958’s The Defiant Ones proved prophetic. After returning to Broadway theater for the central role of Walter Younger in playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, he starred in the film version two years later. Hollywood roles continued to pour in, and by 1967, Poitier was the most bankable actor on the silver screen, paving the way for Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Mahershala Ali and any other major African-American actor you can name. A trio of movies each dealing with race relations in their own way—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, with Love—marked the summit of his success, while also shining light on the typecasting challenge of presenting a desexualized, respectable image of Black manhood.

Poitier countered that issue in his own fashion, going behind the camera as director of blaxploitation-era comedies like Uptown Saturday Night, A Piece of the Action and Let’s Do It Again. His most successful directorial effort, the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder buddy comedy Stir Crazy (1980), stood as the top-grossing film ever made by a director of color for years. The following handful of films from his extensive filmography (55 films, with nine directed by him) are all essential viewing.

A Raisin in the Sun (1961): This adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play produces a lump-in-the-throat, emotional pinch that floods the eyes and brings the verge of teardrops. The stymied ambitions of Walter Lee Younger (Poitier’s role); the prejudices of a racist, redlined Chicago neighborhood’s welcoming committee; Walter Lee’s sister Beneatha dreaming of following her love to Nigeria—every plot point is as moving as it was on Broadway (where Poitier originated the role). Everyone in the Younger household waits impatiently for a $10,000 insurance check that could turn their lives around. Lena Younger dreams of buying a home in Chicago’s lily-White Clybourne Park. Walter Lee wants to open a liquor store and kiss his chauffeuring days goodbye. Beneatha had medical school and two love interests on her mind. Walter Lee’s wife Ruth is pregnant with their second child and considering an option—abortion, which was unthinkable in 1959. It’s all just as moving in 2022 as it was over 60 years ago.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967): This comedy-drama follows an interracial couple—Black man (Poitier), white woman (Katharine Houghton)—on a trip to meet the woman’s family, who don’t know their daughter’s boyfriend is African American. In one of his most revered roles, Poitier confronts racial conundrums while presenting blackness to white audiences with his characteristic charm and dignity. The movie was also a milestone for portraying the first Hollywood kiss between a Black man and a white woman onscreen, as well as presenting the entire debate over interracial romance skillfully and dramatically enough to score two Oscars: Best Writing, and Best Actress for the legendary Katherine Hepburn. This film catapulted Poitier to the top moneymaking actor of the year, as part of a trilogy (including In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, with Love) of starring roles dealing with race relations.

In the Heat of the Night (1967): This is the 1967 film with the most memorable scenes of Sidney Poitier’s career: He slaps back a white plantation owner with a gut reaction that was shocking during the civil rights era; he also informs another white police chief “They call me Mister Tibbs!” when referred to by the N-word. (The film would eventually spawn a popular 1980s television series.) Poitier stars as Black detective Virgil Tibbs from Philadelphia, who investigates a murder in racist Sparta, Mississippi. But Poitier’s slap of a white man literally became known as the slap heard around the world. Nelson Mandela had viewed a censored version of the film while imprisoned on Robben Island during apartheid, eventually discovered the unedited version and became inspired because, according to director Norman Jewison, “he felt this would never happen in a film in South Africa.”

Uptown Saturday Night (1974): Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte represented Black manhood on the mainstream silver screens of 1960s Hollywood, and so it’s no surprise that Poitier’s first directorial turn would co-star Belafonte: 1972’s Buck and the Preacher. However, in the realm of Black comedy, Bill Cosby was on fire in the early ’70s: from I, Spy to Sesame Street to Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Poitier’s second directorial effort took place in a blaxploitation era (kicked off by Gordon Parks’s Shaft) that had quickly become more exploitative than authentically Black with low-budget films like Blacula. The plot of Uptown Saturday Night involves two blue-collar buddies who get robbed one night at a club and tracks their hi-jinks trying to recover Poitier’s stolen wallet which contains a winning lottery ticket. Belafonte cameos as gangster “Geechie Dan” Beauford, and the film also famously features Black comedy legends Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor. 

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