Sidney Poitier was nothing less than groundbreaking. The first Black actor to rise to prominence in America, Poitier’s career occurred simultaneous to the American Civil Rights movement. Poitier played characters that didn’t propagate false stereotypes and truly became Hollywood’s first Black leading man. His prowess in acting became recognized by critical acclaim and accolades, Poitier becoming the first Black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Known for the strength and grace of his character, Poitier’s performances portray his very own qualities and helped to broaden the range of film roles that Black actors and actresses could take. Poitier led the way for generations to come, his performances influencing the likes of Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, and we look back on his career through this month’s Retrospective Roundtable.
No Way Out (1950)
By Kevin Jones
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out occurs right above a powder keg, capable of exploding at any moment. Sidney Poitier stars as Dr. Luther Brooks, a Black doctor in a time where he would face racial insults from patients and has to endure being spat on by their family members. Assigned one evening to the prison ward, Dr. Brooks attends to Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) and his brother Johnny, both shot in the leg. As Johnny dies (Dr. Brooks believe it to be due to a brain tumor, rather than the leg wound), Ray hurls insults at him with the only thing interrupting his use of the n-word being heinous accusations that Dr. Brooks has killed Johnny intentionally. From there, Dr. Brooks is hell-bent on proving himself, standing tall in the face of Ray’s constant accusations and attempts on his life in order to prove that he was a good doctor who tried to help Johnny. Poitier, as ever, is incredible. No matter the obstacles faced by Dr. Brooks, Poitier takes them on with a steel-faced resolve. One can see the gears turning in his head as he assesses Johnny, trying to figure out what is wrong and desperately racing to address the concerns.
However, the power of Poitier’s performance comes in the ways in which Dr. Brooks refuses to stoop down to Ray’s level. As Ray bleeds out from aggravating the wound, there is Dr. Brooks treating him. Poitier has panic in his voice, urging someone to help him try to keep this man alive. He has every reason to let him die there, nobody would be any the wiser except for himself and, ultimately, that is all that matters. There is a desperation in his voice as he fights against this unreasonable man – who insists Johnny was killed, even after an autopsy dispels any such notion – with Poitier’s passion and earnestness boiling through as he faces an irrational villain. Dr. Brooks fights with logic and reason against a foe who lacks any thoughts aside from selfish and hateful ones. As a young doctor, Dr. Brooks is riddled with uncertainty – the kind that great doctors have, a concern that somehow what they did was never enough even if it was – with Poitier capturing this internal power with such ease and earnestness, standing tall amongst the racial tension tearing apart the city and that fills every scene. Poitier was a master of these roles with No Way Out containing one of his most intense works, while he brings out every ounce of righteous anger, frustration, passion, and urgency that underlies the nature of Dr. Luther Brooks.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
By Eugene Kang
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is a complex work that tackles such big themes such as de facto segregation, assimilation, and class and while it feels sometimes that the characters are speaking in grand statements about these issues that aren’t necessarily naturalistic, strong performances can more than make up for any possible preachiness. Sidney Poitier had originated the role of Walter Lee Younger on Broadway, and the performance that electrified audiences at the time translates easily onto screen. His character is brimming with anger at the indignation of having to work a menial job and the frustration of his dreams being mired by racist redlining policies and untrustworthy friends. Played wrong, Walter could come off as inconsiderate of his family and selfish. But Poitier plays this internal turmoil so precisely that we can understand his emotions and reactions while sympathizing with the other strong performances around him, including Claudia McNeil as his mother Lena Younger, and Ruby Dee as his wife Ruth. Here, we can see the DNA of many characters that Poitier would play. His roles are predominantly gentlemen, but many of them also share that righteous anger brimming just below the surface that add pathos to his characters but not through drawing pity.
Paris Blues (1961)
By Alex Sitaras
In Paris Blues, Sidney Poitier played an expatriate jazz saxophonist, Eddie Cook, who feels more at home in Paris than in the less accepting United States. He plays alongside Ram Bowen (Paul Newman) in a successful jazz club, and their lives are overturned after meeting American tourists Lillian (Joanne Woodward) and Connie (Diahann Carroll). Ram takes an initial liking to Connie, a Black woman, over Lillian, her White friend, though United Artists doesn’t commit to portraying an interracial romance, and Connie ends up romantically involved with Eddie instead; Ram with Lillian.
Poitier is charming as Eddie, and their romance furthers until it comes closer to Connie returning to America. Connie wishes to persuade Eddie to come to America with her, though Eddie resists. He is content in Paris, and he knows he would not be met with the same opportunities and acceptance if he were to move back to America. Racial tension is brought to the forefront within Paris Blues, and Connie’s belief is that one shouldn’t leave America due to racism; instead, she believes one must stay within America to continue to fight racism and push to enact change.
The choice between America and a life without Connie weighs on Eddie. Poitier and Carroll bring different perspectives of Black Americans to American theaters in Paris Blues, and Poitier’s performance is a strong one. Though Paris Blues is not the most acclaimed of Poitier’s work, Poitier and jazz enthusiasts should find much to admire within the film.
Lilies of the Field (1963)
By Alex Sitaras
When Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) pulls over in the Arizona desert to get water from a group of nuns, he gets a little more than he bargains for when he is hired to work a full day. And then a second day. And then is tasked by the nuns with building a chapel. Lilies of the Field is an exercise in absurdity, but Poitier is up to the task and his character forms a charming bond with Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) and the nuns. So strong that, even when it becomes evident he won’t be paid for his work (Mother Maria would say his payment is spiritual), he endeavors to build the chapel and moreover to complete the build on his own. If he’s going to build a chapel, it’s going to be done right.
Despite its religious undertones, Lilies of the Field is ultimately a comedy. The film pokes fun at Homer’s inadvertent mission to build a chapel, the nun’s lack of knowledge of the English language, and even at the not-so-hidden fact that a Black man is working for free. In reflection, Lilies of the Field is one of the Sidney Poitier films that he might have looked down on due to being typecast as this overtly perfect Black man; however, the film can be recognized for the strength of its comedy and performances. Poitier went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for this film – the first time ever a Black man had won the award – and Lilies of the Field stands as an early career highlight for the esteemed actor.
A Patch of Blue (1965)
By Kevin Jones
Sidney Poitier was simply special. It goes without saying, but watching A Patch of Blue leaves one with a remarkable sense of respect and admiration for him. Here, he plays Gordon Ralfe, a man who happens upon Selina (Elizabeth Hartman) in the park. Selina, who is blind, is violently mistreated by her mother Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters) and has only just recently negotiated being able to do her work – stringing beads together into necklaces – from the park instead of at home. Otherwise, she never gets out and has never been to school, convinced it would be worthless due to her being blind. Gordon immediately starts helping her, and this is where Poitier shines. What could be a paper thin character becomes a genuine human being, bringing Selina along for his daily routine with remarkable patience and care, while retaining a righteous rage at how she has been treated.
Poitier had something about him, a refusal to raise his voice unless he knew in his core that something was wrong. He shows it off here in A Patch of Blue, standing firm in the face of Rose-Ann’s racist tirades, sternly fighting for Selina, and even fending off the confusion of his brother at why he cares so much about Selina. Poitier’s range here is subtle, yet pronounced as his tenderness, determination, and strength bring Gordon to life, leaving the viewer touched by the humanity and grace of this man. The trust and camaraderie he builds with Hartman is the film’s greatest weapon, bolstered by the silent confidence he lends her to fight for herself in the face of brutality. It is a stirring film and a wonderful showcase for Poitier who delivers one of his best performances in A Patch of Blue.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
By Eugene Kang
In the Heat of the Night may be peak Sidney Poitier. It is probably his most famous film and the stark opposite of another film that he appeared in, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was also released in 1967. This film about a Black homicide detective investigating a murder of a wealthy industrialist after having been wrongfully arrested by the racist sheriff (Rod Steiger) he would end up working with was a bracing antidote to the roles he had become famous for. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, his educated, genteel doctor had to be so flawless and perfect that any sort of objection from his future in-laws would seem backwards and wrongheaded. His performance in that movie would draw criticism from people who believed that he was upholding stereotypes that made Black characters acceptable to white mainstream audiences.
Yet In the Heat of the Night would thankfully break Sidney Poitier out of that stereotype in the most dramatic way possible. When Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs is slapped by a moneyed Southern aristocrat for implying that he may have been involved in the murder, Tibbs strikes back. If anything would have shocked white and Black audiences alike, it would have been a Black man laying hands on a white man, even one that was clearly racist. In the Heat of the Night isn’t perfect. One could argue that Poitier was still held to much higher moral standards that his white counterparts. Also, racism is easily identifiable in this film, when in reality, it is far more insidious than just a small town of backwards people. But Poitier’s performance still makes a deep impression and would be an example that many actors would look towards when portraying characters fighting prejudice and bigotry.
Buck and the Preacher (1972)
By Eugene Kang
Sidney Poitier as a director may not be as famous as Poitier the actor, but the films he directed marked a departure from the mostly conventional narratives that he would find himself in. In Buck and the Preacher, Poitier tells a uniquely Black story about Black pioneers trying to survive raids from white raiders. It is a violent movie with surprising doses of humor. Poitier himself plays Buck, a man who is capable in quite different ways from the characters that he played. He is good at fighting and strategizing. He is the gunfighter fighting to protect the innocent, a character found in many Westerns, but usually never played by a Black man. Buck and the Preacher also features a funny yet threatening performance by Harry Belafonte, a singer and actor that faced similar struggles about racial identity and fame as Poitier did, as the Preacher. Here, both actors seem to be having a blast playing characters that no white director or studio system would have ever let them play. Poitier’s directorial work would influence future black auteurs in that it showed how rich and culturally specific the work from a non-white director could be.