7 Classic Sidney Poitier Movies

Sidney Poitier: A Principaled Performer and Pioneering Star

Photo of Actor Sidney Poitier in tuxedo
Actor Sidney Poitier at Brigitte and Bobby Sherman's Children's Foundation's 6th Annual Christmas Gala and Fundraiser, 2015. Jason Kempin/Getty Images

An elegant and quietly commanding personality, Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Because of his refusal to compromise his principles and his insistence on taking roles that avoided stereotypical depictions of Black people. Poitier earned the respect of audiences and his peers, and along the way came to define the word dignity.

As in Major League Baseball with Jackie Robinson in the 1940s, Poitier broke down barriers in the 1950s and 1960s, paving the way for others to follow. It didn’t hurt that he was an immensely talented performer and mesmerizing presence on screen, which helped him become the number one box office draw in 1967. Here are seven all-time classic Sidney Poitier movies.

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The Defiant Ones (1958)

MGM Home Entertainment

After making his mark with strong performances in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and 1957’s Edge of the City, Poitier became a big star based on this performance opposite Tony Curtis. Both men played two escaped convicts who go on the run and are forced to stick together thanks to being bound together by a chain. Naturally, Curtis' character hates Black people and Poitier's hates whites. But their harrowing journey toward freedom dispels their animosity for each other, as they learn to work together and eventually become friends.

Poitier took his first step toward history when he became the first African-American male to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor but ultimately lost out to David Niven.

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Porgy and Bess (1959)

Columbia Pictures

Best known for the behind-the-scenes troubles during production, Porgy and Bess was one of the few films where Poitier allowed himself to be pressured into taking a role he knew was beneath him. Many African-Americans felt that George Gershwin’s folk opera perpetuated Black stereotypes with its focus on drugs, prostitution, and violence. Friend Harry Belafonte turned down the role of Porgy, as did Poitier himself. But since he thought that producer Samuel Goldwyn might blacklist him for future roles, Poitier soon relented despite his initial misgivings. The actor regretted his decision for years even though his performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.

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A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Reprising his role from the successful 1959 Broadway play, Poitier was the bright, but angry son of a struggling African-American family trying to make good on the American Dream despite their many hardships both outside and inside the walls of their Southside Chicago apartment. But the tight-knit family starts to come apart when their patriarch passes away and his survivors battle for how to spend the insurance money in order to realize their personal dreams. Since the film featured the original Broadway cast, everyone was comfortable in their roles and delivered strong performances. But it was Poitier who stood out as the ambitious Walter Lee Younger.

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Lilies of the Field (1963)

United Artists

Poitier’s performance as Homer Smith, an aimless handyman who helps a group of nuns in their Arizona farm, far outweighs the film as a whole, which is a rather formulaic story about the importance of a religious life.

It was also one of the few Poitier movies that focused little, if anything on racial issues, which may have helped pave the way toward the actor making history as the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor.  Although his performance on screen ranks as the best of his career, this factor no doubt contributed to his win given how differently people viewed race over forty years ago. A breathless and beaming Poitier delivered a short, but sweet acceptance speech and cemented his place in cinema history.

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To Sir, With Love (1967)

Sony Pictures

In his breakout film, Blackboard Jungle, Poitier played an anti-social high school student who clashes with an idealistic teacher trying to establish order. Here, in To Sir, With Love, the roles are reversed and it’s Poitier playing the educator. This time, however, he’s an American dealing with rebellious kids in the rough East End slums of London. Unable to find work as an engineering professor, he takes the secondary school job in the predominantly white neighborhood until he can find something better. But he takes his role seriously and uses unconventional methods to shape the troubled kids into well-behaved young adults, earning their respect and friendship along the way.

To Sir, With Love was a sleeper hit for Poitier and marked the beginning of an excellent year that saw him become the top box office star in America

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)

MGM Home Entertainment

Directed by Norman Jewison, In the Heat of the Night offered Poitier his most widely recognized role, Detective Virgil Tibbs, a homicide expert from Philadelphia whose initial arrest as a murder suspect in a backwoods Mississippi town leads to an uneasy partnership with a racist local sheriff (Rod Steiger).

The film was seen as an allegory for the Civil Rights movement, particularly in the scene where a wealthy plantation owner (Larry Gates) slaps Tibbs, only to be immediately slapped himself. Legend has it that Poitier refused to sign onto the film unless his character hit back. 

In the Heat of the Night was a big financial hit and one of the rare times where Poitier’s exemplary performance was overshadowed by a co-star; Steiger’s pitch-perfect take on the sheriff who comes to accept his partner as a friend earned him an Academy Award.

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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

Sony Pictures

Poitier once again found himself as the centerpiece of a racially charged drama, this time playing an older divorced doctor who is engaged to marry a younger white woman (Katharine Houghton) and shocks her liberally-minded parents (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) when they announce their intention to marry. While the bride-to-be wants to proceed despite misgivings from all involved, Poitier wants unqualified approval, including from his own parents who also object to the union.

Released during a volatile time in American history, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a huge hit for Poitier and capped his most successful year. The film was notable for being the last movie made by Tracey, who died not long after filming ended.