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13 Essential Films to Watch in Honor of Sidney Poitier
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With the passing of Sidney Poitier, the world lost an exemplary human being.

He believed that "if your dreams do not scare you, they’re not big enough!" He dreamed big, delivered one rousing performance after another, and left behind numerous classics. He was a formidable once-in-a-generation actor, a director, and a diplomat. He stood tall at six feet and two inches. His princely posture was inarguably perfect. His gait was measured and steady. When he spoke, he conveyed authority and shrewdness. He personified class in a world desperate for it. 

As an actor, he was capable of portraying integrity and honor as well as any performer who has ever lived. He was a hero, a north star, and a guiding light to countless actors, especially for his fellow Black actors, for whom he broke so many barriers. 

At the beginning of his acting career, no route had been established for where he was hoping to go. Nonetheless, he embarked on his journey with unwavering ambition. His long list of accomplishments speaks for itself. Poitier finished his illustrious career having acted in over 50 films, having directed nine, and having produced four.

Poitier became the first Black actor to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the 1958 drama The Defiant Ones. Five years later, he became the first Black actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in the 1963 drama Lilies of the Field.

In 2002, he was awarded his second Oscar, an Honorary Award for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen, and for representing the industry with dignity, style, and intelligence. 

We look back on Poitier’s filmography and cherish the work he left behind. Here are 13 films that Poitier worked on to watch in his honor, highlighted in the order of the years they were released. 

1
No Way Out
1950
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Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Produced by the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck, No Way Out marked Poitier’s first starring role. He played Dr. Brooks, a young doctor who is assigned to treat two white racist brothers who have been shot and injured while attempting a robbery. When one of them dies, the other, Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) blames Dr. Brooks and swears revenge. Ray subjects Dr. Brooks to despicable racist abuse and orders his gang to riot in the local Black community. Widmark was uncomfortable playing the role and saying all of the horrible things his character says in the film, especially since he and Poitier had a friendship. Widmark was, nevertheless, quite committed. No Way Out was one of the first Hollywood films to directly tackle the issue of racism. The film could be described as noir meets social message picture. Joseph L. Mankiewicz received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing.    

Where to stream: The Criterion Channel

2
Edge of the City
1957
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Directed by Martin Ritt

John Cassavetes and Poitier, in a role written specifically for him, play two New York City longshoremen who forge a friendship that transcends the bigotry that surrounds them. The gritty drama was Martin Ritt’s feature film directorial debut. The film co-stars Ruby Dee, Kathleen Maguire, and Jack Warden. 

Where to stream: Vudu

3
The Defiant Ones
1958
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Directed by Stanley Kramer

The film marked the first time that Poitier’s name appeared above a movie’s title in the credits. Poitier and Tony Curtis portray two escaped convicts chained together, who must learn to stop quarreling and get along. Typical of Stanley Kramer’s work, the film has a strong social message. Curtis believed in the project so much that he raised the budget for the film through his production company. It would be the only time in his career that Curtis would ever receive an Academy Award nomination. The film received a total of nine Academy Award nominations, winning in two categories; the film won an Oscar for Writing and another Oscar for Cinematography. Although he did not win the Oscar that night, Poitier’s nomination for Best Actor that year was arguably the most important nomination of that entire ceremony, as it marked the very first time that a Black actor had been nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. This was still the 1950s. Legally enforced public segregation would not be abolished until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

4
Porgy and Bess
1959
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Directed by Otto Preminger

Porgy and Bess was an opera by composer George Gershwin. In this romantic musical drama directed by Otto Preminger, the opera was brought to the big screen. The film is set in a fishing village in 1912 South Carolina. Poitier plays Porgy and Dorothy Dandridge plays Bess, a woman dealing with a substance abuse problem. After falling in love with one another, they must deal with the obstacles that come their way, including her violent ex (Brock Peters), her drug dealer (Sammy Davis Jr.), and the disapproving residents of the village. You’ll get to see Poitier act, but you won’t hear him sing; Poitier’s singing voice was dubbed by opera singer Robert McFerrin. The film received a total of four Academy Award nominations, and won the Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture. (In 1960, there was no Academy Award for Best Score. There was an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture, and there was an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.) The Porgy and Bess score beat out the score for Sleeping Beauty that year to take home the Oscar.

Where to stream: YouTube

5
A Raisin in the Sun
1961
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Directed by Daniel Petrie

"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" So begins the poem Harlem, written by the great American poet Langston Hughes. This powerful 1961 drama, based on the landmark Lorraine Hansberry play, which got its title from the line in the Langston Hughes poem, is about a Black family dealing with inner conflict while striving to make it in 1950s Chicago in the face of racism, poverty, and disenfranchisement. The film co-starred Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee. 

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

6
Paris Blues
1961
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Directed by Martin Ritt

Shot on location in the French capital, this romantic drama starring Paul Newman and Poitier features Louis Armstrong and plenty of jazz music. The Duke Ellington score won the Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture. In the film, the two screen legends play expats living in Paris and working as musicians. They meet two beautiful American tourists, played by Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll. Once the relationships become serious, the musicians must decide whether they want to stay in Paris or return to the U.S.

Where to stream: Tubi

7
Lilies of the Field
1963
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Directed by Ralph Nelson

Poitier made history when he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in Lilies of the Field in 1964; he triumphantly became the very first Black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar. At the time, the Civil Rights Movement was leading to sweeping changes across the United States. Poitier’s breaking of the color barrier was an immensely important step forward. In the film, he plays a traveling handyman who becomes the answer to the prayers of nuns who wish to build a chapel in the desert. Although his win was the film’s lone Oscar win, the drama did receive four other Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.    

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

8
A Patch of Blue
1965
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Directed by Guy Green

In the romantic drama, Poitier plays a kindhearted office worker who meets a blind woman (Elizabeth Hartman) at a park one day. As they grow closer over time, he becomes determined to help her escape her abusive home life. When the two kissed on-screen, it was the first time that a Black man kissed a white woman in a film. Shelley Winters won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for portraying the blind woman's racist mother. The film received a total of four other Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Elizabeth Hartman. 

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

9
To Sir, With Love
1967
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Directed by James Clavell

Poitier stars as Mark Thackeray, an out of work engineer who takes a job teaching a group of delinquent white students in the slums of London’s East End. The drama, depicting racial and class issues, performed so unexpectedly well in theaters that Columbia Pictures did market research to find out why so many people had gone to see it; the answer was Poitier. 

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

10
In the Heat of the Night
1967
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Directed by Norman Jewison

"They call me Mr. Tibbs!" Poitier portrays Virgil Tibbs, a clever, diligent, confident Black Philadelphia police detective, who is mistakenly suspected of a murder while passing through a racially hostile Mississippi town. Once he is cleared, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), the police chief of the town, asks him to help investigate the case. The crime drama is a scathing condemnation of small-town racial bigotry. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, and of Poitier’s entire career, Mr. Endicott (Larry Gates), a racist plantation owner, in the middle of being questioned, slaps Virgil Tibbs across the face - Virgil Tibbs immediately slaps him right back across the face. It was the 'Slap Heard Round the World.' The depiction of a Black man slapping a white man in 1967 made history and sent shockwaves through audiences across the country, who, until then, had never seen a Black man strike a white man on-screen. Poitier, fully aware of the power that the scene would have, had the studio put it in his contract that Virgil Tibbs would slap Mr. Endicott right back. The film, regarded as a masterpiece, was nominated for seven Academy Awards; it won five Oscars, including Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (now called Best Adapted Screenplay), and Best Picture. Steiger, who had previously been nominated for his performances in On the Waterfront and The Pawnbroker, received the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.   

Where to stream: HBO MAX

11
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
1967
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Directed by Stanley Kramer

"You think of yourself as a colored man; I think of myself as a man," Poitier, as John Prentice, in a breathtakingly beautiful scene, explains to his father (Roy Glenn) why he feels free to marry the woman with whom he has fallen in love, regardless of the fact that society sees him as a Black man, and her as a white woman. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a charming romantic comedy-drama about Matt and Christina Drayton, a liberal white couple, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, whose daughter (Katharine Houghton) informs them that she has gotten engaged to a Black man. The Draytons contemplate what life is going to be like for their daughter once she enters into an interracial marriage. Kramer wanted to present a positive view of interracial marriage when it was still illegal in over a third of the states. Playing Matt Drayton turned out to be Tracy’s final act as an accomplished performer; he died less than a month after filming was completed. The film was nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards; it won the Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (now called Best Original Screenplay), and Hepburn won for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Hepburn finished her esteemed acting career having received a grand total of 12 Academy Award nominations, and having won four Oscars. Her four Oscar wins in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category remain a record to this day. 

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

12
Buck and the Preacher
1972
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Directed by Sidney Poitier

Having established himself as a leading man, Poitier made his feature film directorial debut with Buck and the Preacher, a socially-conscious revisionist western. In doing so, he became one of the first Black directors to direct a major Hollywood feature film. Poitier not only directed, he also produced, and starred as Buck. His character is an ex-Civil War soldier who transports freed slaves out west. The on-screen revenge exacted by Black characters on white aggressors in the film represented a change in the times. The film co-stars Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee. This year marks the film’s 50th anniversary. 

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

13
Stir Crazy
1980
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Directed by Sidney Poitier

Stir Crazy is a comedy starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. They play two unemployed friends from New York who go out west looking to turn their fortunes around. In Arizona, they are framed for a bank robbery. They end up in prison, where they must hatch an elaborate breakout scheme. The comedy was a smash hit at the box office. It was the third highest grossing film of the year, after Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back and 9 to 5. Films directed by Black directors had been hits before, but this was the first time that a film directed by a Black director had gone on to gross over $100 million in theaters. The film made $101.3 million to be exact, which is roughly $340 million when adjusted for inflation.   

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

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