12 Quintessential Sidney Poitier Performances Everyone Should KnowReading Time: 7 minutes
Some of the best from the talented and trailblazing actor, director, and diplomat.
Bahamian-American actor, director, and cultural ambassador Sidney Poitier died last week at 94. Though he retired from filmmaking nearly two decades ago, he remained one of the most influential people in Hollywood: The child of potato farmers in the Bahamas who became a wildly consequential figure in American film and culture.
Poitier made his mark with a series of films produced in the late 1960s that were critical and box office hits, proving to studio chiefs that Black actors and characters could sell tickets as readily as white ones, and paving the way for an explosion of Black-led films in the 70s. The actor was frequently criticized for a filmography featuring a parade of near-saintly Black characters, written either to be non-threatening to white audiences or to self-consciously draw attention to the absurdity of white superiority in the face of a figure like Poitier—suggesting, to some, that everyday mortals might be less worthy of fairer treatment. There’s something there, perhaps, but focusing on the problematic aspects of the films he starred in does a disservice to the complexity of Poitier’s performances—the humanity and relatability that he brought to every of role.
He was good looking in a leading-man sort of way, with a stentorian voice that conveyed authority, but he was also fearless in his choices, taking on roles that directly confronted race and racism in America in ways that Hollywood films rarely had before. The fact that it became his brand, to a point, never robbed those films of their power. The fact that he became incredibly popular with a broad audience paved the way for actors and directors (himself included) to craft increasingly more nuanced stories about increasingly more complex characters of color. He leaves behind an incredible legacy of performances that are as important as they are entertaining—including the 12 that follow.
As a genre, film noir is far more adaptable than it sometimes gets credit for. Here, it incorporates elements of the social message picture, the tropes of each elevating the other (the darkness of the noir elements ensures the exploration of explicit racism never gets preachy, and that there’s no avenue for an easy happy ending). This was Poitier’s first film role of any significance, and there’s not much of a learning curve for the one-time stage actor who plays a young doctor forced to deal with the overt racism of even patients he’s obliged to treat. One of the first Hollywood movies to directly tackle racism, the film makes clear that even a Black man as accomplished as Poitier’s character will have to put up with an endless array of soul-crushing bullshit. It’s the kind of role that Poitier would become known for, in a film that’s as dark and angry as any he’d ever appear in.
Where to stream: The Criterion Channel
With one eye toward the growing naturalism in film of the late ‘50s, Edge of the City represents a small but important turning point in Poitier’s career, blending the noir elements of of his ‘50s work with the social message-style movies he would later become known for. It’s the story of two longshoremen, played by Poitier and John Cassavetes, who develop a friendship in the face of a bullying boss who knows some unpleasant secrets about Cassavetes’ past. The climax is as brutal as they come, and Poitier gives a powerful, believable performance without any of the show-stopping monologues that came to define his later career. The actor’s follow-up, The Defiant Ones, was more lauded but covers some of the same ground with a bit less subtlety.
Where to stream: Digital rental
Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s now-classic play was just over a year old when Columbia decided to make it into a movie, retaining nearly the entire original Broadway cast—Poitier included, alongside Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, and Louis Gossett Jr. Set in segregated Chicago and inspired by Langston Hughes poem ‘Harlem’ (the one asking us what happens to a dream deferred), A Raisin in the Sun concerns a family’s forthcoming life insurance windfall, as various generations of family members wrestle with how to spend the money, and with what success might look like. Like the play, the film is cynical about the potential for a Black family to progress in America (Poitier’s character being the most cynical of all), but does offer a shred of hope in the guise of family unity. I’m not sure a more impressive cast has ever been assembled, and the script‘s increasing air of claustrophobia and building tension gives them plenty to work with.
Where to stream: The Criterion Channel
Poitier won his single competitive Academy Award for Lilies of the Field, a sweet comedy-drama that’s far less intense than many of his best-known roles. He plays itinerant worker Homer Smith, who takes on a series of jobs for a group of nuns (all Easter European refugees) in Arizona. Though often at odds with the prickly mother superior, Homer helps to build a new chapel for the local migrant workers. Though this is a gentle movie, there’s a complexity to the religious back-and-forth that unfurls between Homer and Mother Maria, each of whom finds very different justifications for the work they do—and also in Homer’s reluctance to help. Black characters who want nothing more than to help white people were and are distressingly common onscreen, particularly in this era, yet Homer’s contentious relationship with Mother Maria mostly muddles that already tired trope.
Where to stream: Prime Video, Tubi, Kanopy, Pluto TV
From roughly 1963 to the end of that decade, Poitier delivered a series of performances nigh unprecedented for any actor: an unbroken string of successful movies spanning wildly different genres, with even lesser-known films like The Slender Thread offering up fascinating performances. Smack in the middle of that period came Duel at Diablo, in which Poitier, teamed with James Garner, plays a formidable, if dandy-ish cowboy in a no-holds-barred western.
Where to stream: Tubi, Pluto TV
This was the middle film in a trio of 1967 movies that cemented Poitier’s spot in the pantheon of film actors and established him as American cinema’s first Black superstar (it, To Sir, With Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? were all box office smashes released within months of one another). Poitier’s turn as the nearly flawless hero cop is the type of role he’d be criticized for later—but here it works to increase narrative tension, as if only one of cinema’s most impressive police officers could possibly make it out of Mississippi alive. Indeed, the movie plays a bit like a horror movie, particularly in the opening moments, when Virgil Tibbs, a Black man stuck in town after sundown, is accosted by the local police and accused of a murder. It’s soon discovered that there’s more to Mr. Tibbs than the locals realize, and that they’ll need his help before they’ll let him go. Rod Steiger brilliantly plays against Poitier as a racist police chief who develops a grudging respect for Tibbs without ever fundamentally changing his ways. Together, the two of them are electric.
Where to stream: HBO Max
Poitier’s best-known performance remains, in many ways, his most controversial, but not for the interracial romance at the film’s center. This was Poitier playing a character as flawless as they come—he’s a good-looking widower and a doctor with a flawless résumé (including a variety of humanitarian causes), as well as impeccable, old-fashioned manners. Even in 1967, many saw the film as out-of-date, and bristled at the suggestion that a Black man might be welcomed into a white family—but only if he were a virtual saint.
Those critiques are all legitimate, but they also miss some of the things that the film gets right, starting with the portrayal of parents Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn not as stereotypical bigots, but instead as aging liberals forced to reevaluate their ideals in the cold light of day. Yesterday’s open-minded progressives often become today’s reactionaries—a phenomenon that’s no less true today than it was in the 1960s, and that lends the film a timelessness. There’s also the facts of Poitier’s performance: The actor lends tremendous warmth, humor, and humanity to John Prentice, a character who would be utterly insufferable in lesser hands. It’s a movie that was largely pitched at white audiences, and many of its problems rest there, but it’s still a charming romantic comedy that runs on the strengths of its lead performances.
Where to stream: Starz
Poitier’s directorial debut, in which he also stars alongside Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee, is a fascinating oddity, a comedy western with Civil Rights Era-overtones that predates Blazing Saddles by two years, it also displays some clear blaxploitation influences. It’s not a classic, but it’s underrated both for how funny it is and also for its place in film history: It‘s one of the first major Hollywood films from a Black director, one that doesn’t apologize for putting its Black characters in front of the white ones, morally and comedically.
Where to stream: Starz
This chase movie invokes a couple of Poitier’s earlier films: 1951’s Cry the Beloved Country took on the horrors of apartheid-era South Africa, while Wilby is directed by Ralph Nelson, who’d previously helmed Lilies of the Field and Duel at Diablo. This one isn’t particularly like either of those movies, though, instead serving as an action vehicle for the very entertaining team-up of Poitier and Michael Caine, with the injustices of apartheid providing a significant backdrop to the action, if not its main thrust. The movie wisely takes the horrors of the era seriously, but ultimately, for better and for worse, leans into its thriller instincts. It’s an interesting hybrid of styles that mostly works.
Where to stream: Hoopla, Tubi
Poitier’s directing career had its ups and downs, but this slapstick Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder comedy was quietly revolutionary, if groundbreaking in a much different way than his earlier acting achievements. The reviews were mixed, but that’s to be expected with a slightly silly comedy of its type (for the record…it’s a very fun movie). Yet it was a box office smash, and the third-highest grossing film of the year behind The Empire Strikes Back and 9 to 5. No Black director had ever come close to that kind of commercial success, and none would again for quite a long time.
Where to stream: Starz
Poitier made some interesting career choices in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, moving behind the camera with very mixed results. By this point, he hadn’t done much acting in over a decade, but popped in for this bit of high-class fun. Sneakers is a caper comedy with an all-star cast, including Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, David Strathairn, Dan Akroyd, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix, and James Earl Jones. Given his legendary status even then, Poitier seems content to enjoy himself immensely as the C.I.A. agent covertly helping a group of old school hackers pull off a heist, and serves as the icing on a very tasty cake.
Where to stream: Max Go
Poitier gave some impressive performances in his last full decade of acting, including as Thurgood Marshall in Separate but Equal and as Nelson Mandela in Mandela and de Klerk. Those are well worth watching, but they also fall squarely into the category of movies that deal with race as their primary subject matter—they’re important films, and good ones, but Poitier also excelled in movies that didn’t require him to explicate weighty social issues or serve as a collective social conscience. Here he plays an emotionally scarred loner who’s nonetheless a valued member of his community, until a developer tries to have him declared incompetent in order to buy his land out from under him. The premise is fairly by-the-numbers, but the execution and performances are top-notch. Other than a couple of documentaries, Poitier would only appear in one film after this—though he would continue to serve as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan and to UNESCO for nearly another decade.
Where to stream: RedBox, IMDb TV