Film Feature: Remembers Sidney Poitier

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CHICAGO – With the passing of actor Sidney Poitier at the age of 94 on January 6th, 2022, another lion of the cinema – who represented succinctly an era of the movies – has left the mortal coil. presents the following appreciation through three film essays in retrospect by Patrick McDonald, Spike Walters and Jon Lennon Espino.

Although Poitier represented American blacks in his early career, often cast as the dignified presence among the bigotry floating around him, his early life was in the Bahamas. He moved to Miami at age 15 (he was born in Miami while his Bahamian parents sold produce there) and after serving in the Army during World War II, he joined the American Negro Theater in New York City.

Poster Art: ‘Lilies of the Field’ (1963), Featuring Oscar Best Actor Sidney Poitier
Photo credit: HBO Max (VOD)

After working in theater, he made his major film debut in 1950 with the incendiary “No Way Out.” He further broke out with “Blackboard Jungle” in 1955, which skyrocketed an almost symbolic career as the person of color who rose above the surroundings of the stories he was a part of, including “The Defiant Ones,” “A Raisin in the Sun” (reprising his stage role), “Lilies of the Field” (Best Actor Oscar Winner), “A Patch of Blue,” “To Sir with Love,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

He curtailed his acting in films after 1970, and began directing films such as “Uptown Saturday Night,” “Stir Crazy” and infamously “Ghost Dad,” but continued as a admired representative of his era and actor emeritus. His final roles in a feature film was in “The Jackal” (1997), but he also did a TV movie called “The Last Brickmaker in America” in 2001. Besides his Best Actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field,” he was nominated for “The Defiant Ones,” won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for “The Measure of a Man” and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, among many other honors over the years. He passed away in Los Angeles at his home.

Patrick McDonald, Spike Walters and Jon Lennon Espino of have their favorite Sidney Poitier films, and pay tribute to the legacy of the man who with his presence represented both a culture and a generation.

StarIN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) by Patrick McDonald

In the Heat of the Night
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

The film “In the Heat of the Night” is a deceptively simple. A Philadelphia police detective named Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is arrested because of his color in an American Southern town, a town that is dealing with a murder of a white industrialist. When Tibbs identifies himself to Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger), the two team up to solve the murder after Tibb’s boss in Philly suggests it. However, as the case unfolds, the town’s reaction to Tibbs and the ingrained racism of the era makes the case bigger than the pair.

As I mentioned above, Sidney Poitier was often tasked with “representing” American blacks in the stories of the systemic racism and segregation in his acting era of the 1950s through the 1970s. The character of Virgil Tibbs is a proud and superior detective – wanting just to solve the case – and the folks in the Southern town have trouble even believing that through him that circumstance can occur. In the scene that audiences of the era talked about the most, a white plantation owner slaps Tibbs in the face, reacting to a line of questioning. Tibbs slapped him back. Many American blacks of the time reported cheering in the theater … finally “the man” got his comeuppance. Behind the scenes, it was Poitier that suggested the reciprocal slap, and put in his contract that the scene could not be edited out when the film was distributed. He knew its impact.

“In the Heat of the Night” – Oscar Best Picture, 1967 – can be summed up with the memorable delivery of its most famous line of dialogue. What made it memorable was the performance of who delivered it, actor Sidney Poitier.

Chief Gillespie: ‘Virgil’? That’s a funny name for a n***er boy to come from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there? 

Virgil: They call me MISTER TIBBS! 

AVAILABLE through Video On Demand, Cinemax or HBO Max.

StarSNEAKERS (1992) by Spike Walters

Photo credit: Warner Home Video

Sidney Poitier’s career in front of the camera was defined by dignified roles in serious dramas. His career as director behind the camera, by contrast, was defined by screwball comedies like the Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder vehicle “Stir Crazy.” He synthesized these two halves of his career persona beautifully in the underrated spy movie “Sneakers.” Poitier is just one member of an impressively stacked ensemble cast that includes Robert Redford, River Phoenix, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley and many others. He gets to channel his energy into the role of a family man who once worked for the CIA, but has now joined a ragtag group of tech experts out to recover a code breaking box. But the relatively light material also allowed him to let loose a little too … he garners knowing chuckles by slyly playing off his image with a well timed smile here or a quip there, and he even gets to unleash his inner badass too.

It’s not part of his 1960’s glory days, but “Sneakers” is likely the first exposure some younger audiences may have had to this giant of the silver screen. It holds up remarkably well, and shows that there was very little he couldn’t accomplish with grace and dignity. 

AVAILABLE through Video On Demand.

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