Top 10 Greatest Sidney Poitier Performances

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Top 10 Greatest Sidney Poitier Performances

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
This groundbreaking performer may be gone, but he will never be forgotten. For this list, we'll be looking at the most inspirational, powerful, and iconic performances from this trailblazing actor. Our countdown includes “Shoot to Kill”, “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner”, “In the Heat of the Night”, and more!
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Top 10 Sidney Poitier Performances


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Sidney Poitier Performances.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the most inspirational, powerful, and iconic performances from this trailblazing actor.

What’s your favorite Sidney Poitier performance? Let us know in the comments.


#10: “Blackboard Jungle” (1955)


Although only a supporting role, “Blackboard Jungle” helped put Poitier on the map, marking a significant turning point in his blossoming career. While Poitier would come to be known for clean-cut characters, this social drama saw him play a rebel who makes life difficult for a new teacher. There’s more to Gregory Miller than meets the eye, though, possessing a concealed musical talent. The rebellious teen genre was just starting to emerge in the mid-50s, and Poitier couldn’t have been more authentic as a troubled young man with the potential to turn his life around. Ironically, Poitier would later play an inspirational teacher at a dysfunctional school in “To Sir, with Love,” bringing things full circle. In both instances, Poitier turned in Grade A work.




#9: “Shoot to Kill” (1988)


Poitier made his greatest acting strides throughout the 50s and 60s before commencing his directing career in the 70s. After taking nearly a decade off from onscreen performances, Poitier returned to the spotlight in 1988. While technically not Poitier’s first buddy cop picture, “Shoot to Kill” still seemed like an unusual comeback vehicle. Poitier rises to the occasion, though, bringing his signature commanding presence to no-nonsense FBI agent Warren Stantin. At the same time, Poitier stretches his comedic muscles as Stantin must adapt to a wilderness environment and a rugged partner, played by Tom Berenger. It might not be the deepest project in his filmography, but Poitier’s humor and charisma help elevate what could’ve been an average action thriller to a pretty darn fun one.





#8: “Porgy and Bess” (1959)



This musical might be the most elusive entry in Poitier’s filmography. “Porgy and Bess” proved controversial upon release and has rarely been seen since, hence the lower video quality. It’s worth tracking down a copy for Poitier’s Golden Globe-nominated performance, though. Like several other Black performers at the time, Poitier was initially reluctant to accept a part due to the film’s subject matter. Despite this hesitance, Poitier still delivered a powerful and committed


#7: “No Way Out” (1950)


Signifying the changing landscape for Black performers in Hollywood, “No Way Out” saw Poitier play Dr. Luther Brooks. A breakthrough role for Poitier, Brooks holds his head high when he must treat a bigot and his brother. When the brother dies during surgery, Brooks becomes the target of a hate-filled revenge mission. Brooks set a standard for many of the characters that Poitier would later play: an ethical man who won’t cave into adversity, often keeping his pain on the inside. Brooks demonstrates what it truly means to be a hero, standing by the Hippocratic Oath and finding a peaceful route to justice. With such timely themes, “No Way Out” easily could’ve been made today, but then we’d be deprived of an essential Poitier performance.



#6: “A Patch of Blue” (1965)


The most endearing love stories are the ones that defy the highest odds. In addition to the hurdles that interracial couples can face, “A Patch of Blue” explored a dynamic rarely seen in mainstream media: a relationship between a sighted and blind person. Poitier’s Gordon Ralfe is drawn to Elizabeth Hartman’s Selina, a young blind woman who’s been mistreated and sheltered her whole life. Poitier and Hartman are wonderful as two friends who gradually become something much deeper. In a world overrun with cruelty and raised eyebrows, though, can their relationship endure? For all the tragic turns that this story takes, Poitier’s warmhearted portrayal and Hartman’s deeply empathetic work help see us through. Their chemistry is a testament to the age-old saying, “Love is blind.”





#5: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967)


Released when interracial marriage was only legal in 33 U.S. states, this Stanley Kramer film saw Poitier play a Black doctor engaged to a white woman. Just as John Prentice is uneasy about meeting his fiance’s parents, Poitier had butterflies in his stomach about acting opposite fellow legends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Poitier portrays Prentice as a charming intellectual who tries to hide his nerves behind his wit. When push comes to shove, though, Prentice will fight for what’s in his heart. While some might argue that Prentice is too “idealized,” the filmmakers felt this was necessary for the story. Poitier was also compelled to accept roles that challenged stereotypes. As Prentice, Poitier gave us another role model and another iconic performance.




#4: “The Defiant Ones” (1958)


“The Defiant Ones” marked Poitier’s first collaboration with director Stanley Kramer and brought him his first Oscar nomination. Most significantly, Poitier became the first African-American to be nominated for Best Actor. Poitier’s Cullen shares the screen with Tony Curtis’ Joker. These two prisoners also share a chain, the only thing preventing them from killing each other. Being white, Joker initially sees himself at an advantage in this dynamic. Cullen quickly asserts, though, that he’s no pushover. If Joker wants to escape the authorities, he’ll have to work with Cullen, who maintains an unbreakable spirit even in the face of defeat. Their mutual animosity gradually evolves into respect and possibly even friendship. It’s a thought-provoking buddy picture that still resonates today thanks to Curtis and Poitier.



#3: “Lilies of the Field” (1963)


Although he didn’t win for “The Defiant Ones,” Poitier went down as the first Black man to take home the Best Actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field.” Poitier plays Homer Smith, a handyman who befriends several nuns, none of whom speak English especially well. Although reluctant, Homer is convinced to build them a chapel. Along the way, he inadvertently brings the community together and lives out an unfulfilled dream. While Smith’s skin color is referenced a few times, it’s not the focus of the plot. A white actor could’ve been cast as Homer without drastically changing the story. Poitier’s presence adds another layer, however, resulting in a film that was more progressive than some may’ve initially realized. As Homer, Poitier couldn’t be more charming.



#2: “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961)


Poitier originated the role of Walter Lee Younger in the Broadway production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” earning a Tony nomination. About two years later, he immortalized his performance on the silver screen. Walter stands out as one of Poitier’s most complex roles. A proud man who’s struggled for everything he has, Walter sees the opportunity to give his family a better life when they receive a $10,000 insurance check. Money can’t solve every problem, though, especially when mishandled. For all of Walter’s flaws, the audience can’t help but empathize with him. Walter has found nothing but roadblocks in his pursuit of the American Dream. Once he starts listening to his family, though, Walter finds the courage to make their dreams a reality.



Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.


“Cry, the Beloved Country” (1951)

The Role Brought Poitier to South Africa, Which Was Revolutionary For the Time


“Cry, the Beloved Country” (1951)

United Artists



“Sneakers” (1992)

One of Poitier’s Last Major Roles & One of His Most Enjoyable


“Sneakers” (1992)

Universal Studios




“The Slender Thread” (1965)

You Can’t Go Wrong With Poitier, Anne Bancroft, & Director Sydney Pollack


“The Slender Thread” (1965)

Paramount Pictures



“The Bedford Incident” (1965)

A Cold War Film Elevated by Poitier’s Performance


“The Bedford Incident” (1965)

Columbia Pictures




#1: “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)


Although he wasn’t nominated at the Oscars, Sidney’s groundbreaking work as Virgil Tibbs helped carry “In the Heat of the Night” to a Best Picture victory. It was an especially notable win considering that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated earlier that month. Tibbs is a Black detective who allies with a white police chief played by Rod Steiger. The murder case brings Tibbs to Mississippi where bigotry lurks around every corner. Even when confronting a prejudiced plantation owner, Tibbs commands respect. In addition to the immortal line, “They call me Mister Tibbs,” Poitier’s greatest contribution was a retaliating slap - a moment he fought to keep in the film. It’s just one of the many examples of how Sidney forever changed cinema and broke down barriers for people of color.
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It's really sad that Sidney Poitier has died.
No love for Uptown Saturday Night with Bill Cosby?