Total Recall

Sidney Poitier's 7 Most Memorable Performances

In honor of his passing, we look back at the films of the history-making Hollywood great.

by | January 7, 2021 | Comments

(Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

In honor of his passing, early today were are republishing a celebration article we released on his birthday back in 2019.  As one of the first African-American film stars, Poitier boasts a career littered with accolades, historical moments, and seminal performances too numerous count. As Hollywood tribute pour in for the incredible actor, we at RT thought it the perfect time to highlight just a few of our favorite performances from the iconic actor’s career. With 60-plus credits spanning over 60 years, it was a near-impossible feat, but here are our seven favorite Sidney Poitier performances. We encourage you all to re-visit (or enjoy one for the first time) over the weekend to celebrate the legendary actor’s memory.

Blackboard Jungle (1955) 74%

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 is undeniable.

The Defiant Ones (1958) 92%

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) 95%

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 from within his community as he strives to achieve, but through it all, he and his family persevere.

Lilies of the Field (1963) 92%

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) 72%

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 nd 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.

In the Heat of the Night (1967) 95%

“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) 79%

(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.

Tag Cloud

Quiz Fox Searchlight Peacock GIFs Superheroe live event Columbia Pictures medical drama Paramount Plus romance Netflix Christmas movies AMC Plus critic resources cops franchise Toys Black History Month Marathons international Television Critics Association RT21 marvel cinematic universe Superheroes aliens Star Trek singing competition screenings police drama dexter Fox News IFC Films australia travel video MTV mob nbcuniversal YouTube WGN slasher biography El Rey TV Land PaleyFest The Walking Dead Pride Month suspense BBC America LGBTQ Shondaland laika adaptation child's play Calendar jurassic park movie justice league 2017 know your critic Discovery Channel name the review Elton John Instagram Live Mindy Kaling 20th Century Fox Hallmark Opinion television Valentine's Day stoner toronto canceled TV shows serial killer CW Seed zombie trailers reboot scary TruTV Biopics festivals Apple crossover 73rd Emmy Awards 1990s vampires natural history TLC king kong VOD Photos Cannes spider-man Tubi Fargo Podcast Reality Competition Music Rocky psycho elevated horror CBS golden globe awards Set visit crime Mary Tyler Moore CBS All Access 2021 transformers boxoffice Ellie Kemper dceu Watching Series gangster finale japanese ABC Signature films National Geographic hidden camera comiccon biopic dc BET Awards Mary poppins Arrowverse Disney Channel dark children's TV FX Television Academy The Purge science fiction Food Network OWN Brie Larson discovery spanish language action-comedy popular Cosplay A&E Tarantino a nightmare on elm street Extras Drama TV renewals all-time Showtime Lifetime Christmas movies canceled Disney streaming service Turner Classic Movies casting scorecard Mudbound live action anime HBO romantic comedy 99% sopranos Tomatazos spy thriller deadpool streaming movies historical drama heist movie batman based on movie sag awards disaster Acorn TV Binge Guide vs. cancelled TV series best Shudder 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards E3 chucky Election Universal Pictures PBS kong legend Spectrum Originals SundanceTV History Travel Channel TIFF new york movies doctor who NYCC Image Comics 2019 Legendary Disney+ Disney Plus Awards Tour Exclusive Video Nickelodeon blaxploitation young adult APB MCU nature 72 Emmy Awards dramedy sports Grammys universal monsters Netflix zombies social media prank cartoon supernatural dogs Oscars Box Office Avengers Animation superman Tokyo Olympics Sundance Now worst new star wars movies ViacomCBS comedies USA Network Pixar Masterpiece Creative Arts Emmys ESPN Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Trivia royal family revenge Crunchyroll YouTube Red telelvision Emmy Nominations Amazon Prime Apple TV+ satire Nat Geo festival CNN Pacific Islander independent criterion football Comics on TV Ghostbusters nfl TCM animated FXX USA composers Certified Fresh fast and furious Comedy BBC Kids & Family target crime thriller space basketball richard e. Grant Emmys critics Britbox Pet Sematary ITV cooking HBO Max political drama anthology archives what to watch cinemax Hear Us Out Universal HFPA marvel comics werewolf DirecTV GLAAD PlayStation Trophy Talk AMC binge Musicals cancelled television Interview Polls and Games Sundance obituary posters Western Video Games Captain marvel lord of the rings TCA Winter 2020 dreamworks The Arrangement mockumentary kaiju halloween Hollywood Foreign Press Association high school Year in Review TCA harry potter Teen American Society of Cinematographers Sony Pictures women NBA documentaries sequels mutant Freeform unscripted joker Classic Film TV movies video on demand Marvel Television renewed TV shows VH1 witnail mission: impossible aapi See It Skip It X-Men game of thrones Comic Book comic book movies Holiday dragons boxing diversity Star Wars Epix adventure Rom-Com miniseries asian-american 71st Emmy Awards Warner Bros. scene in color Disney Martial Arts Vudu hollywood Song of Ice and Fire FOX Countdown Infographic Paramount Network rt archives period drama Summer BBC One TV hist TBS indie Trailer A24 Starz halloween tv Women's History Month olympics Sci-Fi LGBT docuseries Family RT History Christmas The CW Spring TV Amazon Studios IFC feel good south america BET Marvel NBC breaking bad Premiere Dates Apple TV Plus die hard blockbusters reviews zero dark thirty foreign Neflix Alien tv talk strong female leads ID screen actors guild ratings scary movies Schedule Tags: Comedy Winter TV Chernobyl comic Hulu Sundance TV Amazon Character Guide Mystery 24 frames Turner Syfy Wes Anderson cancelled TV shows directors DC Comics Horror BAFTA 2020 DC streaming service crime drama Heroines pirates of the caribbean cults comic books series black comedy emmy awards Paramount Comic-Con@Home 2021 art house WarnerMedia Anna Paquin Cartoon Network President saw 93rd Oscars classics YouTube Premium indiana jones news Pirates cats rotten worst movies jamie lee curtis Rock ABC superhero Rocketman mcc The Academy Comedy Central spanish TCA 2017 GoT black fresh Red Carpet First Reviews latino psychological thriller trophy CMT 2018 Funimation razzies Mary Poppins Returns Endgame Stephen King spider-verse debate Best and Worst 2016 Nominations comics hispanic heritage month teaser Film Festival Disney Plus Broadway genre versus leaderboard streaming christmas movies green book Spike TV One twilight DC Universe Reality SDCC Action Chilling Adventures of Sabrina OneApp E! Marvel Studios IMDb TV Country golden globes documentary Fantasy Writers Guild of America Sneak Peek godzilla 21st Century Fox rom-coms Holidays Prime Video YA french TNT docudrama Hallmark Christmas movies Esquire theme song Baby Yoda robots Awards Tumblr cars rt labs critics edition Musical Adult Swim remakes First Look HBO Go Pop talk show politics Crackle Pop TV sitcom japan New York Comic Con wonder woman king arthur DGA stop motion cancelled stand-up comedy Logo FX on Hulu 007 comic book movie adenture italian monster movies blockbuster technology free movies game show ghosts award winner MSNBC new zealand Winners Amazon Prime Video spain Film Fall TV quibi Black Mirror Academy Awards venice facebook book VICE 45 79th Golden Globes Awards 2015 Super Bowl Lifetime 4/20 spinoff sequel true crime parents Walt Disney Pictures rotten movies we love concert ABC Family kids Bravo Thanksgiving The Walt Disney Company toy story The Witch rt labs SXSW Dark Horse Comics thriller war 90s TCA Awards Ovation james bond San Diego Comic-Con Lucasfilm slashers Lionsgate hispanic book adaptation