That’s Sir Sidney Poitier to you. That’s right, Sidney Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 for his artistic accomplishments. He’s from The Bahamas, which is part of the British Commonwealth, and thus eligible for that kind of honor.
He’s also Sir Sidney Poitier to you because there isn’t a man in the history of film who looks better in a suit. Well, except maybe Cary Grant. Maybe.
Back when I was in high school, I started reading The New Yorker, mainly for Pauline Kael’s film reviews. One feature of her reviews was that she always seemed to comment on the appearance of the actors. It was really the first time I began to notice how actors dressed and how they looked. I specifically began to notice how the men looked.
But anybody can wear a $2,000 custom-made suit and look good. The really elegant dudes are the ones who make something as simple as a turtleneck and casual slacks look sexy. Check out Sidney Poitier as handyman Homer Smith in a white t-shirt and khaki work pants in Lilies of the Field (1963). Hello!
With Poitier, however, it goes beyond the clothes. He has a sort of elegance that is imbued in every atom of his persona. Poitier has a preternaturally regal manner, which stands in astonishing contrast to his childhood and backgrounds. Poitier is the youngest of eight children who grew up on a farm in the Bahamas. When he moved to the U.S. on his own in his teenage years, he worked mainly as a dishwasher and was taught to read by another dishwasher.
This was a street-wise boy who made himself into the paragon of style and class. Poitier dominates every scene he is in, despite underplaying every role. I’m thinking now of the hissing anger that seethes under his calm and determined reading of the simplest line: “They call me Mister Tibbs.” Writing that just now the hair on the back of my neck went up. Chillingly powerful. Here are five Sidney Poitier films for you to watch to get to know this classic actor.
This powerful film is based on Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play about an African American family buying a house in an all-white suburb of Chicago. This was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to portray family life among African Americans. This is an utterly heartbreaking and moving film. The entire cast is magnificent: Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, and Louis Gossett, Jr. in his film debut. If you are looking for a compelling, old-fashioned melodrama that is as relevant today as it was when it was made nearly 60 years ago, this is the movie to add to the queue.
Poitier became the first African American man to win a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance here. He plays war vet and itinerant handyman Homer Smith who stops at a small, ramshackle convent in the middle of nowhere Arizona for water for his car. What started out as a quick pit stop turns into something more when he ends up helping a bunch of German nuns build a church for the impoverished Latinos living in the adjacent town. This is a deeply emotional film in which everyone is an underdog and facing long odds every day of their lives. It also is a deeply religious movie and a good one to watch during the Easter season.
Poitier is Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective waiting for a train in a small town in Mississippi at 3 a.m. when he is arrested at gunpoint. He is suspected for the murder of a local industrialist by Gillespie, the local chief of police (and racist yahoo), played by Rod Steiger. Tibbs proves himself innocent and reluctantly decides to stay and help solve the crime when eventually asked by a sheepish Gillespie. This is a searing and intense murder mystery with a social conscience. Steiger won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and the film took home Best Picture that year as well.
Poitier was one of the hottest actors on the planet in the late 60s, and this film was one of three hugely successful films he made in 1967 (a triumvirate that includes In the Heat of the Night and the not-so-good-but-super-earnest Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Here, Poitier is Mark Thackeray, an unemployed engineer who ends up getting a job as a teacher in the slums of East London. This is one of those school movies about a new teacher winning over tough street kids. It’s probably the best of this genre, too, although I have always liked Blackboard Jungle (1955). Plus, this movie has Lulu’s immortal cover of the title song.
This is a lively and fun high-tech caper movie that has largely been forgotten, and I don’t know why. It’s incredibly entertaining and suspenseful. The bad guys are really bad, and the good guys are really good—and who doesn’t enjoy seeing them outsmart the villains? Poitier is a straight-arrow partner to Robert Redford’s Martin Brice, and they run a security firm in San Francisco. The offices, I would like to point out, I think pioneered the look of many tech firm offices in San Francisco with exposed brick and open floor plan. (Oh, I could go on and on about the offices in this movie.) Poitier is just great as the serious, by-the-book guy in a firm of oddballs and eccentric computer geniuses. Great cast, too: Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix and David Strathairn.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.