The first Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, Sidney Poitier’s legacy looms large over the history of cinema.
Born in Miami, but raised in the Bahamas, he was even knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and given the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
As a new Apple TV+ documentary (which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month) celebrates the life and career of the man who died in January this year, Stuff to Watch has picked out six of his greatest performances (and where you can watch them right now).
* Sidney: Apple TV+ doco a fitting tribute to an actor who forged his own path
* Twenty 21st century movies that will leave a mark (and where you can watch them)
* ‘The epitome of dignity and grace’: Barack Obama leads tributes for Sidney Poitier
* Oscar winner and groundbreaking actor Sidney Poitier dead at 94
The Defiant Ones (1958, iTunes)
Nominated for nine Academy Awards (it won two – for black-and-white cinematography and original screenplay), this groundbreaking drama saw Poitier joined by Tony Curtis for a tale about two escaped prisoners who are shackled together and must co-operate in order to survive. It was the first time Poitier’s name appeared above the title.
“[Director] Stanley Kramer, his superb stars, featured players and the rest have put on record a powerful, tender definition of brotherhood,” wrote Detroit Free Press’ Helen Bower.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967, iTunes)
Kramer was again at the helm of this rare film of the era to depict inter-racial marriage in a positive light (it was still illegal in 17 states just a few months before this was released).
Poitier plays 37-year-old black widower Dr. John Prentice who is being introduced to the parents of his 23-year-old fiancee Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) after a whirlwind Hawaiian romance. Notable also as the nine and last pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
“It would be easy to tear the plot to shreds and catch Kramer in the act of copping out. But why? On its own terms, this film is a joy to see, an evening of superb entertainment,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert.
In the Heat of the Night (1967, iTunes, GooglePlay, YouTube)
Perhaps now most famous for Poitier’s immortal line: “They call me Mr Tibbs”, this adaptation of John Ball’s 1965 novel of the same name focuses on his Black Philadelphia police detective who becomes embroiled in a small town Mississippi murder investigation.
Rod Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor (one of five the movie took home, including Best Picture) for his role as local police chief Gillespie.
“In the Heat of the Night is really an excuse for Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier to snipe and rage and hate each other. And the ferocious clash of these two fine actors in this racial drama transcends script and setting,” wrote Newsday’s Joseph Gelmis.
Lilies of the Field (1963, iTunes)
The film that earned Poitier his historic Best Actor Oscar, this adaptation of William Edmund Barrett’s 1962 novel sees him play Homer Smith, an itinerant worker who encounters a group of East German nuns who believe he has been sent to them by God to build them a new chapel.
“A funny, sentimental, charming and uplifting film, in which intelligence, imagination and energy are proved again to be beyond the price of any super-budget,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter’s James Powers.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961, iTunes)
Cited by some as one of the best plays ever written, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 tale about a south Chicago Black family attempting to improve their financial circumstances with an insurance payout following their patriarch’s death was quickly turned into a Hollywood movie that also featured Ruby Dee and screen debutant Louis Gossett Jr.
“It is a wonderful, warm comprehension of a people’s humour, strength and dignity under a multitude of sad and silly burdens. It should generate love, not hate,” wrote The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther.
To Sir, With Love (1967, iTunes)
Featuring the No.1 US hit of the same name by one of its stars Lulu (it reached only No. 12 in New Zealand and was bizarrely only released as a B-side in her native UK), this school-set drama focused on Poitier’s British Guiana immigrant who, unable to find work as an engineer, reluctantly takes on teaching Class 12 at North Quay Secondary School in London’s East End.
Based on E.R. Braithwaite’s 1959 autobiographical novel.
“To Sir With Love is a good movie made excellent by a towering and sensitive performance from Sidney Poitier,” wrote Cleveland Press’ Tony Mastroianni.