Total Recall

Sidney Poitier's 7 Most Memorable Performances

On his 92nd birthday, we look back at the films of the history-making Hollywood great.

by | February 20, 2019 | Comments

(Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

The great Sidney Poitier turns 92 on February 20, 2019, just shy of 55 years since he became the first Black man to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. As one of the first African-American film stars, Poitier boasts a career littered with accolades, historical moments, and iconic performances too numerous count. To celebrate the actor’s 92nd year, we at RT thought it the perfect time to single out just a few of our favorite performances from the iconic actor. With 60-plus credits spanning over 60 years, it was a near impossible feat, but here are our seven favorite Sidney Poitier performances.


Blackboard Jungle (1955) 75%

This was the role that put Poitier on the map. The struggles of educators and students are well documented in this violent and controversial film, based on Evan Hunter’s seminal novel about inner-city school conditions. Modern audiences might struggle to sympathize with the tactics employed by Poitier’s character, Gregory Miller, but the cultural impact his performance had on both society and education are undeniable.


The Defiant Ones (1958) 81%

Poitier garnered his first Oscar Nomination for his portrayal of Noah Cullen, an escaped black convict shackled to white fellow escapee John “Joker” Jackson, played by Tony Curtis. Motivated to survive and escape, the foes are forced to work together and eventually come to respect one another. The conflict and eventual cooperation between the two men plays out against the backdrop of Jim Crow, underscoring the institutions of oppression that existed at the time that would have prevented their friendship from developing. The final scene of Noah defiantly singing to Joker remains a near perfect ending to the prison break caper.


A Raisin in the Sun (1961) 100%

In the film adaptation of the eponymous stage play, Poitier plays Walter, the patriarch of the Youngers, a young black family living in 1950s Southside Chicago, trying to better themselves through family and a commitment to give their children a better life. Acting as a cinematic counterpoint to the idealized American dream, the Youngers struggle to combat institutions and individuals dead set on never allowing them to rise above. Walter is met with hostility and apprehension from those outside and within his community as he strives to achieve, but through it all, he and his family persevere.


Lilies of the Field (1963) 91%

In this Oscar-winning role, Poitier plays Homer Smith, a traveling handyman who stumbles upon a group of German nuns. The nuns believe Homer was sent by God to help them build a chapel, and by the final frames, the audience is all but convinced of the same. Even Queen Oprah Winfrey found herself without words during her Golden Globe acceptance speech as she tried to explain what it was like watching Poitier win that Oscar. Instead, she opted to quote his line from the film and simply said, “Amen, amen, amen, amen.” To which, I say no one could have put it better.


Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) 71%

If the first role you most closely associate with Poitier is not In the Heat of the Night, the likely winner is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Playing a black man meeting his white fiancée’s liberal and affluent parents, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was one of the first positive portrayals of interracial marriage to hit the big screen. Acting alongside Hollywood legends Spencer Tracey nd Kathleen Hepburn, Poitier made his mark on a verifiable American cinematic masterpiece. The influences and themes of Guess Who Coming to Dinner can be seen in several modern-day adaptations — Jordan Peele brilliantly subverted those themes for social commentary and comedic effect in Get Out.


In the Heat of the Night (1967) 96%

“They call me Mister Tibbs!” Poitier spoke those words in In the Heat of the Night, and both the film and the line have become synonymous with the actor’s career. Sitting at number 16 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes” list, the rebuke to racist Mississippi Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is a thing of beauty. Playing Virgil Tibbs, a Pittsburgh detective charged with solving a homicide in the Deep South, Poitier navigates prejudice and incompetence to gain the respect of his would-be adversary. And with his help, the police attempt to solve the suspenseful, complicated whodunit.


Sneakers (1992) 78%

(Photo by Universal Pictures)

In a refreshing change of pace later in his career, Poitier starred in this ensemble suspense comedy. Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn, River Phoenix, and Poitier all play former spies working as security consultants. The crew inadvertently get caught up in a web of deception involving a former associate (Ben Kingsley) when they’re tasked with the high stakes retrieval of a very powerful piece of government equipment. Playing Donald Crease as an aging, more-than-over-it former CIA agent and the team’s voice of reason, Poitier showed us that he can be, in fact, quite hilarious.

Tag Cloud

Nominations National Geographic Infographic USA Network DC Universe cats DC streaming service Heroines Mary poppins hist Character Guide Christmas medical drama Trivia unscripted Cartoon Network cults miniseries crime drama doctor who Spike docudrama strong female leads spider-man Summer Warner Bros. DirecTV Fox News FXX Lifetime IFC Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Anna Paquin Reality Competition Ovation RT21 Paramount Network Biopics biography Mystery TruTV political drama CMT war Apple TLC Thanksgiving Mary Tyler Moore GIFs Captain marvel TV Land Kids & Family VH1 Film Festival cinemax Watching Series facebook Esquire BET TIFF PaleyFest TCA 2017 Opinion Trailer Election Toys DGA Sony Pictures composers Dark Horse Comics Sundance Spectrum Originals jamie lee curtis period drama NBC travel TBS Marvel SDCC Drama mutant History Certified Fresh true crime Ellie Kemper robots Netflix Brie Larson Starz diversity YouTube Red green book Logo YouTube Premium Pixar Mary Poppins Returns Reality See It Skip It game show historical drama Red Carpet Awards Tour Sundance Now aliens Vudu Comedy Schedule El Rey what to watch Polls and Games adventure 2017 2016 animated sports Tomatazos The Witch Oscars TNT television Mudbound spinoff TCA LGBTQ Bravo Emmys ABC thriller festivals nature witnail FX vampires Star Wars Cosplay elevated horror mockumentary The CW Country Animation Lucasfilm Horror zombie Sneak Peek justice league Spring TV Box Office dceu BBC America BBC anime talk show President social media adaptation FOX Podcast disaster HBO ABC Family comic TCM finale Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Tumblr New York Comic Con CBS PBS singing competition Calendar crossover Shudder OWN toy story Premiere Dates Adult Swim Emmy Nominations Syfy science fiction teaser natural history E! zero dark thirty Stephen King Extras casting Columbia Pictures YA IFC Films police drama Set visit Rock Chernobyl San Diego Comic-Con Disney Tarantino dragons crime streaming Walt Disney Pictures Writers Guild of America Hulu crime thriller American Society of Cinematographers MCU Crackle 24 frames boxoffice 21st Century Fox cooking 45 ratings E3 MSNBC dc Rocketman Showtime Elton John Music technology transformers discovery 2018 Amazon Prime Pet Sematary VICE Winners sequel SundanceTV Freeform Masterpiece TV Universal Pride Month A&E supernatural First Look based on movie RT History NYCC The Arrangement USA Star Trek cops CNN Photos Pirates Epix Acorn TV Lionsgate romance Quiz Paramount theme song ITV blaxploitation Martial Arts richard e. Grant spy thriller Amazon Year in Review Fantasy Comic Book Musical 2019 Super Bowl Grammys Shondaland Nat Geo politics HBO Max Marathons binge Rom-Com X-Men CBS All Access Interview Cannes Song of Ice and Fire GoT Women's History Month award winner dramedy Comedy Central Teen Rocky Holidays zombies 2015 20th Century Fox AMC psycho Creative Arts Emmys Comics on TV Western Winter TV Musicals Fall TV WGN sitcom 007 Superheroes SXSW Pop Countdown Ghostbusters MTV Mindy Kaling space Black Mirror Action harry potter golden globes anthology Superheroe Sci-Fi Trophy Talk ESPN comiccon Disney Channel Nickelodeon psychological thriller Valentine's Day Awards APB serial killer Food Network WarnerMedia LGBT Video Games CW Seed GLAAD Britbox DC Comics Best and Worst