Friday, January 21, 2022
Jan. 21, 2022

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Films showcase Poitier’s talent

Groundbreaking, Oscar-winning actor died last week

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I know Sidney Poitier was the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor in a leading role back in 1963 for his portrayal of Homer Smith in “Lilies of the Field.”

I know the thespian, who died last Thursday at age 94, was a man of dignity, elegance and grace who dared to have a career as a leading man in an industry that ignored the talents of Black actors.

And I know how much the world loved him. In 2006, Philadelphia presented Poitier — the recipient of dozens of Golden Globe and NAACP Image Awards — with the Marian Anderson Award at the Kimmel Center. Three years later, then-President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I’m familiar with Poitier’s incomparable legacy, yet I’m sad to say I haven’t seen many of his movies.

I asked Philadelphia-area film experts for advice on what to watch this weekend to brush up on my Poitier knowledge. Here are their suggestions.

Tigre Hill, a filmmaker best known for his political documentary “The Shame of A City:”

  • “No Way Out” (1950) — In this thriller, Poitier plays a doctor whose patient would rather die than be treated by a Black man.

“In this breakthrough movie, Poitier — Dr. Luther Brooks — was called to treat a racist criminal in jail. The tension between (Poitier’s) character and Richard Widmark’s (Ray Biddle) was memorable. It was quite a debut for a Black actor in Hollywood. He was already great, and this was 15 years before he became a superstar.”

  • “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) — Poitier stars as Virgil Tibbs in this Academy Award-winning film.

“Poitier’s character is called upon in the South for his expertise. He’s a Philadelphia detective. And I love that scene in which the southern white racist (Larry Gates) smacks him and Tibbs smacks him back. It’s really great. People are forced to look beyond his race.”

  • “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) — The first film to depict an interracial relationship, which was illegal in many states. Six months after the film was released, anti-miscegnation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in Loving vs. Virginia.

“This is one of my favorite movies because of the acting. He’s in this film with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. People have to remember the context. For a Black man to be in a relationship with a white woman on screen, he had to be a super Negro. And that’s what Sidney Poitier was, a super Negro.”

Maori Karmael Holmes, founder of the BlackStar Film Festival:

  • “A Raisin In the Sun” (1961) — Poitier stars opposite Ruby Dee in this film adapted from the Lorraine Hansberry masterpiece.

“In all of his performances, there’s a groundedness and an elegance — no matter the material. One of the most brilliant things about his work was an ability to find humanity and depth in these extraordinary, but sometimes flat, characters he was given to play.”

Lenn Webb, co-host of “The Micheaux Mission,” a podcast that examines Black cinema through the lens of culture, history and art:

  • “Buck and the Preacher” (1972) — Poitier stars as a former Civil War soldier in this Western set after Emancipation.

“Sidney Poitier directed and starred in this with Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee. It was more a comedic role for him. But what impressed me was how he gave Ruby Dee agency in that movie. And the respect he has for her as an actress shows up in the film.”

  • “The Defiant Ones” (1958) — In this drama, Poitier and Tony Curtis play escaped inmates chained to each other who must cooperate to survive.

“He’s his own man in this movie. This film deals with racism but doesn’t turn a blind eye to the times, and it shows the bigotry on both sides. The two characters come to be friends and develop a hard-earned respect for each other.”

  • “Paris Blues” (1961) — In this love story, Poitier stars as a expat jazz musician in Paris.

“If you want to see Sidney Poitier in pure romantic mode, I’d definitely watch ‘Paris Blues.’ He’s definitely a more supporting character in there, but if you watch his relationship with Diahann Carroll, you can see the embers of their affair.”

Vincent Williams, co-host of “The Micheaux Mission:”

  • “To Sir, with Love” (1967) — This British drama covers social and racial issues in a city school.

“My absolute favorite Sidney Poitier film. He’s a teacher in London, and it’s a role where you see his ability. You see his dignity. You see him as this sort of paragon of humanity the way the film revolves around him. Everyone then just views Poitier that way. So I think if you want to talk about the ideal Sidney Poitier movie, this is it.”

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