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) 76%

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) 83%

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) 94%

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) 94%

“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

Amazon Studios Year in Review Masterpiece cancelled TV shows technology Oscars Amazon Prime President Disney renewed TV shows Chernobyl Emmy Nominations Netflix Video Games PBS Bravo aliens APB Elton John Classic Film GoT Nominations Winners Netflix Christmas movies DC streaming service singing competition OneApp vampires Binge Guide Infographic Sundance TV Fall TV harry potter Musical quibi theme song Tubi natural history anthology Rocky Grammys Shudder 24 frames TBS Comedy Turner Apple TV+ reboot Logo true crime VICE Best and Worst Tumblr festivals scary movies National Geographic dramedy dceu A24 Lifetime Christmas movies Academy Awards Biopics mutant Box Office dogs MCU spy thriller disaster blaxploitation PaleyFest adaptation LGBT social media A&E Pop canceled TV shows GIFs YouTube Red versus tv talk ESPN IFC Films BBC Baby Yoda BET free movies movie cinemax game of thrones Shondaland CW Seed Rock Paramount Hulu Calendar Marvel Television screenings Trailer AMC comic Cannes rotten movies we love DirecTV spanish language Awards YouTube Premium psycho Drama unscripted transformers The Purge Marvel Nat Geo south america RT21 Star Trek Quiz 45 animated History Spectrum Originals facebook 2016 crime thriller Photos teaser Peacock revenge MTV 2019 Podcast period drama Spring TV strong female leads Animation werewolf series Valentine's Day Vudu FOX talk show ABC award winner SundanceTV sitcom spain mockumentary ghosts finale Adult Swim Toys Walt Disney Pictures Brie Larson Turner Classic Movies Teen First Look docudrama Fantasy Pet Sematary franchise science fiction CBS medical drama Arrowverse WarnerMedia Pop TV Lionsgate cancelled TV series sag awards Thanksgiving boxoffice Star Wars ITV 007 Mindy Kaling documentary Chilling Adventures of Sabrina thriller Anna Paquin TCM Comics on TV Columbia Pictures Western Character Guide Heroines Mary Tyler Moore Mystery Tarantino MSNBC what to watch Premiere Dates BBC America slashers Superheroe doctor who Holiday Tomatazos First Reviews stand-up comedy Rom-Com jamie lee curtis Pride Month Winter TV SXSW space blockbuster See It Skip It Fox News Travel Channel Comic Book 20th Century Fox 21st Century Fox cancelled television Writers Guild of America Endgame San Diego Comic-Con name the review Awards Tour American Society of Cinematographers Black Mirror Showtime Christmas Warner Bros. dragons Comedy Central sports Disney Plus Mudbound canceled Britbox crime drama streaming video christmas movies Polls and Games Holidays Starz Schedule Epix TCA hist Cartoon Network supernatural Watching Series Kids & Family nature Sundance Emmys NBC Apple television USA Network Amazon Prime Video FX TIFF E3 Music Ellie Kemper Discovery Channel Hallmark composers IFC foreign Disney+ Disney Plus NYCC Avengers TLC CNN Apple TV Plus Ovation batman Food Network Nickelodeon dc Marathons Country Red Carpet Martial Arts Action Cosplay based on movie crossover Acorn TV cancelled TV Land ratings RT History Lifetime Film green book YouTube cars VH1 indie Ghostbusters The Arrangement 2020 screen actors guild 2017 Television Academy Extras Countdown 71st Emmy Awards Sci-Fi FX on Hulu cults X-Men halloween DGA toy story CMT SDCC WGN Superheroes FXX Film Festival Black History Month binge Dark Horse Comics Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt The Walking Dead Trophy Talk historical drama sequel Crackle Amazon Trivia war elevated horror directors Funimation Disney streaming service E! zombies biography anime Pixar Rocketman Crunchyroll Universal Captain marvel spinoff Musicals cops Disney Channel breaking bad Lucasfilm Marvel Studios Pirates Set visit TruTV Family discovery El Rey witnail Sneak Peek kids The CW Interview Certified Fresh crime Hallmark Christmas movies TCA 2017 police drama game show comics Song of Ice and Fire Mary Poppins Returns zombie cartoon HBO Max TNT Reality Competition 2018 Freeform psychological thriller golden globes robots YA reviews justice league casting GLAAD Sundance Now book joker serial killer travel ABC Family USA hispanic Esquire Syfy The Witch Election CBS All Access Opinion diversity Sony Pictures Horror Spike independent cooking Stephen King OWN Mary poppins cats 2015 New York Comic Con miniseries richard e. Grant TCA Winter 2020 universal monsters LGBTQ children's TV DC Comics HBO Women's History Month Reality TV renewals movies romance DC Universe latino Super Bowl political drama romantic comedy politics comiccon Creative Arts Emmys TV adventure spider-man Summer Paramount Network zero dark thirty