Our Birthday Bashes put a nice spin on the whole gift-giving ritual. You walk in empty handed and leave with some of the greatest films on earth because, at our party, it's the honoree who's giving out the presents.
Bahaman Sidney Poitier was the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor. His performance in Lilies in the Field earned him the honor, although he was nominated earlier for The Defiant Ones. Poitier continued to be a defiant one his whole career, breaking the color barrier in film as a box office star, producer and director. He brought to life Maxwell Anderson’s anti-apartheid play Cry, The Beloved Country on the big screen and answered Langston Hughes’ question “what happens to a dream deferred?” in the Larraine Hansbury play, A Raisin in the Sun.
Throughout a career that spans over fifty years, Poitier has approached his work and his life with an unmatched level of dignity and has left an incomparable body of work in his wake.
The Blackboard Jungle (1955)
Probably the best of the juvenile delinquent sub-genre, Vic Morrow stars as the leader of a gang of teenage thugs that terrorizes a new teacher, “Daddy-O” at their inner city boys’ school. Sidney Poitier plays the sensitive Gregory, a troubled youth torn between doing the right thing and being seduced by the thug life. Aside from an outstanding cast of young actors, The Blackboard Jungle also boasted one of the first rock-n-roll soundtracks.
The Defiant Ones (1958)
In Stanley Kramer’s fascinating drama, Tony Curtis and Poitier are two convicts who escape from a chain gang. They are both virulent racists, but shackled together, they must learn to rely on each other as the are ruthlessly pursued by the Sheriff and prison warden. It doesn’t get much better than this.
In the Heat Of The Night (1967)
“They call me Mr. Tibbs.” With that one proud and defiant statement, police officer Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) commands the respect of good ol’ boy Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger). Gillespie begrudgingly enlists Tibbs assistance in solving an unusual murder and, in the course of their investigation, both of their racial biases are revealed in subtle and shocking ways. Norman Jewison’s film won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
“Liberal” parents, Matt and Christina (Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) are in for the shock of their lives when their daughter, Joey (Katherine Houghton) comes home from a vacation with a fiancé in tow. The fiancé happens to be John (Poitier), a young doctor, who happens to be black. A maelstrom of deep-seated prejudices surfaces as both sets of parents attempt to come to terms with the union and John and Joey consider the ramifications of their nuptials in the racially volatile late Sixties.
To Sir, With Love (1967)
Poitier flipflops his role from The Blackboard Jungle, here playing a teacher assigned to a school of delinquents in London’s East End. The ultimate “cool teacher,” Poitier dispenses with textbooks and formalities and treats the kids like adults, teaching lessons with real-life, practical applications, battling other teachers and administrators to do it. Although it plays a little silly and hippie today, the sentiment is so genuinely sweet, it’s impossible not to like this movie.
This week marks Poitier’s 73rd birthday. Guess who’s coming for cake?