Actor, director, and activist Sidney Poitier is no longer with us, and while fans of classic film stars know these days are fated to come it’s never easy. With a man like Poitier, especially, it was hoped he’d have more years (though 94 is no small feat). He was a trailblazer from the moment he made his debut in 1950’s “No Way Out.”
From there, Poitier had a string of features that didn’t just shake up Hollywood but were thought-provoking and entertaining. The 1960s were when Poitier truly came into his own, with hit after hit that cemented him as an A-list leading man, a groundbreaking achievement for a Black actor. His features allowed him to play characters who were ambitious, intelligent, and romantic. The latter trait is especially poignant considering Hollywood’s long-standing avoidance of presenting interracial romances on the screen.
It’s shocking to realize that Poitier was only nominated twice, in his entire career, for an Academy award, once in 1959 for “The Defiant Ones” and again in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field,” for which he won Best Actor (becoming the first Black man to do so). Yes, he wasn’t even nominated for the pivotal 1967 drama “In the Heat of the Night,” though his white co-star Rod Steiger was and then won that year. Poitier would be given an honorary Oscar in 2002. In the 1970s, he turned to directing with “Buck and the Preacher.” Though Poitier was far from the first Black director, he was able to transition from acting to directing, working in both roles throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Here are 13 of Poitier’s best acting performances and where you can stream them. The features here are the strongest of Poitier’s career, as well as among the best of their respective eras. note: Scream Movie
“No Way Out” (1950)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, “No Way Out” was Poitier’s debut feature. He stars as a Black doctor compelled to treat two racist brothers, one of them played by legendary Hollywood heavy Richard Widmark. Poitier’s character endures all manner of indignities, though when one of the brothers dies in his care it threatens to spark a riot. Poitier was just 22 years old when he made this film and the sheer power he conveys in his performance here is unparalleled. The 1950s is oft-presented on-screen as a time of both consumerism and paranoia, but Mankiewicz’s film dispels that simplistic vision with a frank look at racism. note: Deadly Frontline Movie
“No Way Out” is currently available to stream via the Criterion Channel and can be rented via all online retailers.
“Blackboard Jungle” (1955)
“Blackboard Jungle” is one of the definitive juvenile delinquency movies that littered the cinema landscape of the mid-1950s. It announces itself with opening credits playing “Rock Around the Clock.” Glenn Ford plays a teacher sent to an inner-city school where he meets Poitier’s Gregory Miller, a rebellious young man who possesses hidden musical talent. The film became synonymous with all things “teen” but Poitier’s role is the one audiences remember. His performance is so emotionally nuanced it’s almost impossible to see anyone else. note: The First Incense Movie
“Blackboard Jungle” can be rented via all online retailers.
“The Defiant Ones” (1958)
This Stanley Kramer-directed drama garnered Poitier his first Academy Award nomination. He plays escaped convict Noah Cullen, on the run alongside John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis). The problem is both men hate each other yet are handcuffed together, forcing them to rely on the other for survival. The overall message of the feature is blunt, to say the least, but Poitier and Curtis are in fine form. Poitier played several characters who stood up to the indignities of racism throughout his career and as Cullen, sent to jail for assaulting a white man who insulted him, it lays the groundwork for his game-changing performance in “In the Heat of the Night.”
“The Defiant Ones” is now streaming via Amazon Prime Video and Pluto TV. It can also be rented via Vudu. note: G Storm Movie
A Raisin in the Sun” (1961)
Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun” is one of the most important works of midcentury theater. The 1961 feature adaptation was as significant, though it wasn’t recognized for any Academy Awards upon release. Poitier plays Walter Lee Younger, the family patriarch to the Younger clan. The family is anticipating a $10,000 life insurance check and all have differing ideas on what to do with the money. When part of the money is invested as a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood, the family must decide what to do when it’s discovered they aren’t welcome. There are so many things worth discussing about “A Raisin in the Sun,” just one of which is Poitier’s performance. His Walter Lee is a man desperate to change his family’s circumstances. He wants to be a man with something to show for all his hard work and outside influences keep prohibiting that. The film’s final scenes are a gut-punch, filled with all manner of uncertainty that felt poignant at the time, but are just as relevant now.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is streaming via the Criterion Collection and is available to rent online at all major retailers.