Clinton Olsasky: Remembering Sidney Poitier in Five Legendary Performances
Trailblazer. Icon. Legend.
Those are just some of the words that have been used to describe Sidney Poitier since his passing at the age of 94 last month.
But truth be told, words alone could never fully convey the sheer impact that Poitier had on the American film industry and, more importantly, on American culture at large.
Often starring in movies that either directly or indirectly addressed race relations in America, Poitier was the only regularly cast Black leading man in Hollywood during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
As a result, Poitier took on the indispensable task of being not just an actor but an on-screen surrogate for the Civil Rights era and all it represented.
Poitier’s peak in popularity as a Hollywood leading man coincided with the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1967, he starred in no fewer than three box-office hits, one of which (“In the Heat of the Night”) won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The subsequent half-century saw Poitier continue to act sporadically before moving into directing and, later, diplomacy, serving as an Ambassador of the Bahamas.
To say that Poitier lived a full and impactful life would be a major understatement. Even now, in the wake of his passing, Poitier’s legacy can be strongly felt through the generations of actors he inspired and in the indelible performances he left behind.
What follows is just a small sample of that legacy: five Poitier performances that embody the actor’s effortless grace, charm and dramatic power.
5. “Lilies of the Field” (1963)
Poitier made history when he became the first Black man to win an Oscar in 1964. The performance that earned him that statuette? “Lilies of the Field,” the charming (and at-times surreal) story of a traveling laborer and a group of Eastern European nuns in the Arizona desert.
Poitier plays Homer Smith, a handyman who repeatedly gets roped into helping the nuns — so much so that the religious sisters start to believe his good deeds are a gift from God (Homer, on the other hand, isn’t convinced).
Poitier may have had more emotionally complex roles elsewhere, but he was rarely funnier than in “Lilies of the Field.” Take the above scene, in which Poitier orders breakfast with a hilariously lustful longing for melted butter, maple syrup and marmalade.
Yeah, we’ll have what he’s having.
4. “A Patch of Blue” (1965)
Ever heard the old adage “love is blind?” Well, “A Patch of Blue” takes that expression literally, exploring the budding (and all-but-forbidden) romance between a Black man and a blind white woman in the mid-1960s.
Now, that premise may sound contrived on paper (and perhaps even a bit too on-the-nose as a metaphor for race relations in America), but it isn’t. Thanks to Guy Green’s understated direction, Jerry Goldsmith’s enchanting score and two grounded lead performances by Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman, “A Patch of Blue” remains a wholly believable romantic drama and a masterclass in compassion.
Poitier’s performance as the soft-spoken Gordon Ralfe is steeped in that compassion. For example, see the above scene for the film’s meet-cute in the park, in which Poitier’s Gordon looks past Selina’s scars to form a real human connection — a connection that will naturally blossom into friendship and, ultimately, romance.
3. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967)
When Poitier’s Dr. John Prentice is invited to meet his fiance’s parents in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” anti-miscegenation laws had just been struck down following the landmark Supreme Court decision of Loving v. Virginia.
Perhaps that’s why Stanley Kramer’s 1967 classic can feel so tied to the historical moment in which it was released. And yet, “Guess Who’s Coming Dinner” also feels somehow timeless — no doubt thanks to a trio of all-time great performances by Spencer Tracy (his last), Katharine Hepburn and, above all, Poitier.
Poitier brings his usual soft-spoken grace to the movie, but there are also moments in which we see Poitier flex his dramatic muscles more than ever. In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Poitier’s Prentice confronts his father about the generational gap between them before confirming his own personhood (“I think of myself as a man”).
The scene (see above) is a true star turn for Poitier and a showcase for the actor’s often under-appreciated dramatic range, moving seamlessly from righteous indignation to quiet confirmations of paternal love to, finally, self-assured independence.
2. “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)
“They call me Mister Tibbs!”
Poitier’s defiant retort from “In the Heat of the Night” is now enshrined as one of the greatest one-liners in movie history.
But the 1967 Best Picture winner is so much more than one great line. In fact, “In the Heat of the Night” is many things at once: a clear-eyed commentary on American race relations, a thrilling police procedural, even an unlikely buddy film.
At the center of it all is Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs, a top homicide detective visiting a small town in the Deep South. Against his better judgment, Tibbs is convinced to help the town’s bigoted police chief (Rod Steiger) solve a grisly murder.
Like so many of Poitier’s other characters, Tibbs is poised and restrained under pressure. But unlike past Poitier roles, Tibbs has a breaking point: a point when restraint erupts into volcanic resistance. Just see the above scene for the movie’s infamous “slap heard ‘round the world.”
1. “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961)
It’s true that Poitier was often typecast as over-idealized Black characters for the sake of white audience consumption — which makes “A Raisin in the Sun” all the more miraculous of a movie.
Based on the Broadway hit of the same name by Lorraine Hansberry (who also penned the screenplay), “A Raisin in the Sun” takes on an unabashedly authentic African-American point of view to tell its story. It centers on a Black working-class family who, following an insurance payout, must decide how to spend the money, with the hopes of improving their social standing in a racially segregated community.
Poitier plays the family patriarch Walter Lee, a role he actually originated in the Broadway stage play. As a character, Walter is more three-dimensional (and, yes, more flawed) than what Poitier would typically play, and the actor makes the most of it with a wonderfully multilayered performance.
Buoyed by Hansberry’s incisive dialogue, Poitier dives deep into Walter’s psychological and emotional wounds while tackling taboo issues like housing discrimination and assimilation alongside fellow acting titans Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee.
The above scene is just one of the movie’s countless great acting moments with Poitier and Dee: a marital standoff that simmers at the breakfast table (“Damn these eggs!”) before boiling over with the long-repressed anguish of the Black experience.
— Clinton Olsasky