The Best of Sidney Poitier

Hollywood legend is dead at age 94

Sidney Poitier, the first Black man to win an Oscar and one of the most important actors in cinematic history, has died at age 94. Poitier had been basically retired for 30 years, but at his peak accumulated a significant filmography that changed the way ordinary Americans looked at Black people, on-screen and in real life. Here are some clips of his most important moments.

The Blackboard Jungle (1955)

Poitier had made a few movies already, but this teens-in-trouble melodrama was his first significant role. In this scene, Glenn Ford pegs him as a “natural leader.” Given that Poitier was the only Black kid in the room, that was a pretty progressive notion for the time. It set the stage for a career to come.

The Defiant Ones (1958)

My personal favorite Poitier movie, in this late-50s tolerance drama, Poitier escapes from a chain gang while shackled to Tony Curtis. That may have been a dream of many people from that era, but it gave Poitier nothing but trouble. It’s pretty obvious from this scene who was the better actor.

A Raisin In The Sun (1961)

Poitier’s performance as Walter Lee Younger, a character from one of the most significant of the golden-age of American kitchen-sink playwrighting, cemented his reputation as an actor of quality and dignity. Two years later, he would win the Oscar for his performance in Lilies Of The Field.

A Patch of Blue (1965)

The most Poitier of Poitier movies, in this one, Sidney plays an intelligent, sophisticated young man who befriends a blind woman who can’t see color, only inner beauty. It’s a bit of a ham-handed metaphor, but this movie contains some beautiful performances, including another brutal Shelley Winters turn, for which she won an Oscar.

To Sir, With Love (1967)

From student to teacher, now Poitier plays the role of mentor to a ridiculous gang of Sweathogs. This very dated movie features an uncomfortable theme song, which Lulu sings to Poitier, who just has to sit there. But this conclusion, where the misfits present Poitier with an endless series of knickknacks, is nevertheless effective.

In The Heat of The Night (1967)

Poitier overcomes another despicably hammy Rod Steiger performance and utters one of the most famous lines in movie history.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967)

Remember when Sidney Poitier fell in love with a basic white woman whose parents were Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy? This scene, where Poitier tells off his own father, is the best and most memorable in that picture, and marked the end of a golden decade-plus where Poitier dominated the screen.

Uptown Saturday Night (1974)

Two men whose reputations could not have possibly diverged further teamed up for a trio of sleazy urban caper pictures in the 1970s. This is the best of the Poitier-Cosby mysteries. And we can never forget that Poitier directed Cosby in 1990’s ‘Ghost Dad.’

Stir Crazy (1980)

Poitier directed nine movies. This hilarious prison comedy starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor was super-popular in its time, and definitely his best effort. That’s right, that’s right. We bad.

Shoot To Kill (1988)

In a sign of how far Hollywood had fallen from its heyday, this despicable scene features Poitier giving the ooga-booga to a bear in the wild.

Sneakers (1992)

After the above clip, it’s kind of a relief that Poitier’s last significant screen appearance was as an ensemble player in this fun Robert Redford computer-hacking movie. Now considered a cult classic, Sneakers is plenty of fun to watch. Poitier doesn’t have to carry the burden for Black people, or anyone else. He can just have fun being in a movie.

Sidney Poitier, RIP.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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