Total Recall

Sidney Poitier's 7 Most Memorable Performances

We look at some of the films starring the iconic actor, whose influence Oprah Winfrey cited in her powerful speech at the Golden Globes.

by | January 9, 2018 | Comments

(Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

During Sunday night’s star-studded Golden Globes ceremony, we also celebrated a night of firsts. Aziz Ansari became the first Asian-American actor to win Lead Actor in Comedy Series for his work on Master of None, and Sterling K. Brown became the first African-American actor to win Lead Actor in Drama Series, portraying the sob-inducing yet always poignant Randall on This is Us. On a night of historic firsts, the highlight of the evening, without question, was the incomparable Oprah Winfrey accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her lifetime achievements in television and film.

Oprah brought the crowd to its feet and moved the Hollywood elite to tears with her inspirational words (a full transcript of which can be found here), and they roused such emotion that it felt akin to a religious experience. During her speech, Oprah acknowledged the past, charged us to fight against the injustices of today, and dared us all to dream of a future where our children and grandchildren can all hope for a brighter morning. She began by sharing her memory of watching fellow Cecil B. DeMille recipient Sidney Poitier accept the Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field.

As one of the first African-American film stars, Mr. Poitier boasts a career littered with accolades, historical moments, and iconic performances too numerous count. With that in mind, we here at RT thought it the perfect time to single out just a few of our favorite performances from the iconic actor. With 60-plus credits spanning over 60 years, it was a near impossible feat, but here are our top 7 Sidney Poitier performances.

Blackboard Jungle (1955) 75%

This was the role that put Poitier on the map. The struggles of educators and students are well documented in this violent and controversial film, based on Evan Hunter’s seminal novel about inner-city school conditions. Modern audiences might struggle to sympathize with the tactics employed by Poitier’s character, Gregory Miller, but the cultural impact his performance had on both society and education are undeniable.

The Defiant Ones (1958) 79%

Poitier garnered his first Oscar Nomination for his portrayal of Noah Cullen, an escaped black convict shackled to white fellow escapee John “Joker” Jackson, played by Tony Curtis. Motivated to survive and escape, the foes are forced to work together and eventually come to respect one another. The conflict and eventual cooperation between the two men plays out against the backdrop of Jim Crow, underscoring the institutions of oppression that existed at the time that would have prevented their friendship from developing. The final scene of Noah defiantly singing to Joker remains a near perfect ending to the prison break caper.

A Raisin in the Sun (1961) 100%

In the film adaptation of the eponymous stage play, Poitier plays Walter, the patriarch of the Youngers, a young black family living in 1950s Southside Chicago, trying to better themselves through family and a commitment to give their children a better life. Acting as a cinematic counterpoint to the idealized American dream, the Youngers struggle to combat institutions and individuals dead set on never allowing them to rise above. Walter is met with hostility and apprehension from those outside and within his community as he strives to achieve, but through it all, he and his family persevere.

Lilies of the Field (1963) 89%

In this Oscar-winning role, Poitier plays Homer Smith, a traveling handyman who stumbles upon a group of German nuns. The nuns believe Homer was sent by God to help them build a chapel, and by the final frames, the audience is all but convinced of the same. Even Queen Oprah Winfrey found herself without words during her Golden Globe acceptance speech as she tried to explain what it was like watching Poitier win that Oscar. Instead, she opted to quote his line from the film and simply said, “Amen, amen, amen, amen.” To which, I say no one could have put it better.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) 69%

If the first role you most closely associate with Poitier is not In the Heat of the Night, the likely winner is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Playing a black man meeting his white fiancée’s liberal and affluent parents, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was one of the first positive portrayals of interracial marriage to hit the big screen. Acting alongside Hollywood legends Spencer Tracey & Kathleen Hepburn, Poitier made his mark on a verifiable American cinematic masterpiece. The influences and themes of Guess Who Coming to Dinner can be seen in several modern-day adaptations — Jordan Peele brilliantly subverted those themes for social commentary and comedic effect in Get Out. Please note, however, that I like to pretend that mess of a movie starring Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac never actually happened.

In the Heat of the Night (1967) 96%

“They call me Mister Tibbs!” Poitier spoke those words in In the Heat of the Night, and both the film and the line have become synonymous with the actor’s career. Sitting at number 16 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes” list, the rebuke to racist Mississippi Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is a thing of beauty. Playing Virgil Tibbs, a Pittsburgh detective charged with solving a homicide in the Deep South, Poitier navigates prejudice and incompetence to gain the respect of his would-be adversary. And with his help, the police attempt to solve the suspenseful, complicated whodunit.

Sneakers (1992) 81%

(Photo by Universal Pictures)

In a refreshing change of pace later in his career, Poitier starred in this ensemble suspense comedy. Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn, River Phoenix, and Poitier all play former spies working as security consultants. The crew inadvertently get caught up in a web of deception involving a former associate (Ben Kingsley) when they’re tasked with the high stakes retrieval of a very powerful piece of government equipment. Playing Donald Crease as an aging, more-than-over-it former CIA agent and the team’s voice of reason, Poitier showed us that he can be, in fact, quite hilarious.

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