Most iconic actors represent ideas bigger than themselves — they’re a stand-in for our values, hopes and fears — but for Sidney Poitier, it was always more complicated than that. Raised in the Bahamas before moving to the U.S. as a teenager — he was actually born here in 1927 — Poitier was the first Black movie superstar, coming to prominence at the height of the civil rights movement. So the Oscar-winning actor had to represent more than simple ideas — he became the very embodiment of the African-American struggle for equality. As such, he carried a burden no white actor had to contend with. He had to prove to Hollywood and audiences that he (not to mention an entire race of actors) deserved a chance.
That Poitier succeeded is even more impressive considering that pressure — to say nothing of the horrible racism he faced even when he was dominating the box office. “It was a strange time for me,” he later admitted. “I lived in a country where I couldn’t live where I wanted to live. I lived in a country where I couldn’t go where I wanted to eat. I lived in a country where I couldn’t get a job, except for those put aside for people of my color or caste.”
To be accepted by white viewers, he played certain types of roles — noble, honorable men whose inherent goodness was undeniable, often in earnest movies about injustice. Consequently, it can be a little too easy to reduce his career to a string of dry, now dated “message movies” that flattered liberal beliefs about how we could all unite as one people. But among the unheralded tenets of being an artistic trailblazer is that you open the door so that those who follow can have better and more exciting opportunities than you ever knew.
African-American actors such as Denzel Washington and Will Smith wouldn’t have enjoyed the varied careers they’ve had without Poitier doing the initial hard work — a debt Washington acknowledged at the 2002 Oscars, where he won Best Actor, telling Poitier (who’d been awarded an Honorary Oscar at the same ceremony), “Forty years I’ve been chasing Sidney. I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.”
So where do you start to get a grasp of Poitier’s impact? Rather than highlighting his best or most essential films, I decided to pick 10 that I felt were the most representative of his artistry — as well as illustrate the journey he went on to break barriers for other actors of color. On screen, Poitier radiated a decency that matched his good looks. He was a gentleman who could bring a righteous fury. He was sexy in a grownup way. While the outside world was bigoted and cruel, he was steady and dignified.
Here are the films and appearances that sum up his legacy…
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
One of the most influential “dedicated teacher tries to help troubled youths” dramas, Blackboard Jungle was an early highlight in Poitier’s film career, as he played Gregory, a high school student with a bright mind but an uncertain future. But even though Poitier was depicting a seemingly stereotypical tough guy, the actor’s handsomeness and charisma made him seem soulful and sympathetic — we could tell there was depth there.
Blackboard Jungle also began Poitier’s involvement in pointedly political movies — audiences were shocked by this story, which candidly discussed interracial dynamics in an American school. “Was I amazed that the film was considered subversive? No, not really,” Poitier said in 2000. “Hollywood hadn’t made these kinds of films. The social conscious movement that was creeping up elsewhere hadn’t ingrained itself in the film industry yet.”
The Defiant Ones (1958)
Poitier was asked once what appealed to him about this story of two convicts, played by Tony Curtis and himself, who make a break for it while chained together. “You find a Black man and a white man who have nothing particular in common except that they are human beings,” he replied. “If you put them in a certain set of circumstances that are as lifelike as some we have here in our country, and they have to function for a mutual end, you’ll find that each will, in time, unconsciously expose areas of himself to the other that the other will grow to respect.”
That may be a simplistic humanistic message, but it was quite radical for a mainstream Hollywood film of the 1950s, and the co-stars made it work, with Poitier portraying a racist who will end up becoming friends with Curtis’ equally narrow-minded jailbird. As Noah Cullen, Poitier showed us why a man would have hate in his heart. But the actor made sure we understood why there was also so much pain in there, too — and even tenderness.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Poitier had played Walter Lee, the restless son in a working-class family, on Broadway, reprising his role for the big-screen version directed by Daniel Petrie. In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Lee struggles to find himself in a racist society, and the movie movingly dramatized African-American men’s struggles with masculinity — how it’s crushing to live in a world that seeks to demean, dehumanize and emasculate you. If you just know Poitier from his “noble” roles, A Raisin in the Sun provides a glimpse of the less-polished side of this actor’s onscreen persona. Walter Lee is filled with rage but still holding onto hope that he can find a better life.
Lilies of the Field (1963)
One of Poitier’s key achievements as a movie star was something he shouldn’t have had to do: He made the very presence of Black main characters palatable to white audiences. On its face, Lilies of the Field is a very simple story of a nice military veteran who meets a sweet group of nuns, who come to believe he’s been sent by God to build a chapel for their small town. But the movie preached the importance of community and faith, hiding its message of racial tolerance inside a feel-good story. Poitier was probably never as straight-up likable as he was here, and he was rewarded with the Best Actor Oscar — the only time the Academy Award was given to a Black lead actor in the 20th century. (The Academy has handed out the prize to a grand total of three Black men this century.)
A Patch of Blue (1965)
As dashing as Poitier is, he doesn’t have many romantic dramas to his name. An excellent exception is this love story in which he plays Gordon, who falls for Selina (Elizabeth Hartman), a blind woman who lives with her abusive mom (Shelley Winters, who won an Oscar for the role). Film critic Sergio Mims has pointed out that although A Patch of Blue could be seen as an early example of the “Magical Negro” trope — beatific Black character with magical powers helps white main character with his or her problem — the movie is far more nuanced than that, as Gordon is just an ordinary guy and their relationship is filled with mutual need.
Aware of the times in which it was made, A Patch of Blue doesn’t go for the clear-cut happy ending. After all, a white character and a Black character walking off into the sunset together would have angered plenty of viewers. (In fact, a scene where Gordon and Selina kiss was removed before it played to some Southern audiences.) Which is why Poitier is so poignant as a man who may lose out on his soul mate, the obstacles to the characters’ love as real within the story as they would have been outside the movie theater.
To Sir, with Love (1967)
More than a decade after playing a street tough in Blackboard Jungle, Poitier found a school-centric role that better fit his brand. In To Sir, with Love, he’s Mark Thackeray, an immigrant in London who takes a teaching job, becoming an inspiration for his hardscrabble white students. As Thackeray, Poitier is all tough-love decency — he treats these hooligans with respect, and earns theirs in return — and audiences flocked to his sense of integrity and civility. (Also, his sex appeal: Vanity Fair’s Laura Jacobs observes, “What’s fascinating is the way director [James] Clavell serves up [Thackeray] as a heartthrob. Academics writing about Poitier have complained that sexuality was kept out of his movies, somehow missing the physical charisma right in front of them … but Clavell surrounds his star with females old and young who gaze and gaze in admiration and something more.”)
To Sir, with Love was Poitier’s biggest hit to that point, demonstrating that moviegoers were becoming increasingly comfortable with him — in fact, he was a superstar. According to Aram Goudsouzian’s biography, Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon, Columbia, which released To Sir, with Love, “commissioned a Gallup poll [which] determined that Poitier topped a list of actors — including Julie Andrews, Burt Lancaster, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor — whose name alone would draw customers to otherwise unknown movies.”
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
The only movie starring Poitier to win Best Picture, In the Heat of the Night is both a whodunit and a social drama, following sophisticated Black Philadelphia cop Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) as he teams up with a racist white small-town sheriff (Rod Steiger) as they reluctantly work together to solve a murder. Made amidst Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Selma, the film (set in Mississippi) put Poitier in a difficult spot. As director Norman Jewison later recalled, “He said, ‘Well, I’m not going south of the Mason-Dixon line.’ And he said it with such emphasis that I realized it was very important to him. I said, ‘Why is that?’ And he says, ‘I had an unsettling experience with Harry Belafonte in Georgia, where our car was chased and we were threatened, and I don’t want to go down there.’” Indeed, Poitier understood all too well the bigotry his character would face in the Deep South.
In the public’s mind, In the Heat of the Night has been simplified to Poitier’s memorable “They call me Mister Tibbs!” line — an electrifying, defiant moment that encapsulates all of this cop’s anger and pride when being belittled by his white colleagues. But Poitier is excellent at balancing smarts, pain and tenacity — he makes you feel what it’s like to be the brightest guy in a room that’s always filled with people who think of you as inferior. Plus, Tibbs was the closest thing Poitier ever had to his own franchise: He reprised his role for two follow-up films, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
The last of Poitier’s three hit 1967 films, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner turned its meet-the-parents scenario into a timely study of interracial marriage. The plot: White woman (Katharine Houghton) plans to introduce her Black fiancé (Poitier) to her mom (Katharine Hepburn) and dad (Spencer Tracy), who like to consider themselves progressive but are nonetheless uncomfortable about the man their daughter has chosen to marry. Filmed against the backdrop of the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case, the movie felt ripped from the day’s headlines.
Poitier had a straightforward but daunting task as John Prentice: He had to be The Most Perfect Man Ever. But that dignified performance came with a sly twist. As director Stanley Kramer said in 1968, “If you take away all the other motives for not getting married, then you leave only one question: Will Tracy forbid the marriage because Poitier’s a Negro? That is the only issue, and we deliberately removed all other obstacles to focus on it.”
Critics complained that Prentice was too squeaky-clean to be true, devoid of any interesting complexity, but that was the point. Poitier’s nice-guy routine is so charming that it makes the parents’ anxiety all the more damning.
Stir Crazy (1980)
As much as Poitier is known for his trailblazing work as an actor, he also wanted to make an impression behind the camera. At the height of his popularity in the late 1960s, Poitier switched gears. “I decided that I must learn everything I could about the production of motion pictures,” he said. “In a way, I had always been doing that by watching directors, but I decided I wanted to make films. … I set out to make films that would get people to laugh at themselves without cringing.”
Alas, filmmaking wasn’t his strong suit, but his most rewarding directorial effort was probably this hit 1980 comedy, which saw Silver Streak costars Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder reuniting as a pair of idiots who, through convoluted circumstances, get mistaken for bank robbers and thrown in jail. Was Stir Crazy’s success due to Pryor and Wilder’s chemistry or Poitier’s artistic brilliance? Probably the former, but it’s funny that even in the directing chair Poitier was drawn to stories in which men of different races work together — even if it’s just for some silly slapstick.
The 74th Academy Awards (2002)
Poitier was essentially retired by the time he received an honorary Oscar early this century. And so because he gives few interviews and largely avoids public appearances, his speech at the 2002 Academy Awards was even more special — particularly considering that it occurred at the same ceremony that Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively, the only time Black performers earned those prizes in the same year. (In fact, Berry remains the only Black woman to ever win Best Actress.)
Poitier’s highly anticipated acceptance didn’t disappoint, and unsurprisingly it was very typical of him: humble but impassioned, regal and cognizant of the grandeur of the moment. “I arrived in Hollywood at the age of 22 in a time different than today’s, a time in which the odds against my standing here tonight 53 years later would not have fallen in my favor,” he began. “Back then, no route had been established for where I was hoping to go, no pathway left in evidence for me to trace, no custom for me to follow.”
From there, he showed his appreciation to the white filmmakers and producers who gave him opportunities to have a movie career. But he also sought to connect what came before to what lay ahead. “Without them, this most memorable moment would not have come to pass and the many excellent young actors who have followed in admirable fashion might not have come as they have to enrich the tradition of American filmmaking as they have,” he said. “I accept this award in memory of all the African-American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years, on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go.”
He thanked his family, but that’s not who he ended with. “Finally, to those audience members around the world who have placed their trust in my judgment as an actor and filmmaker, I thank each of you for your support through the years.” As always, he understood that he represented more than himself, and took on the role of a groundbreaker with grace.