Streaming: The Best Sidney Poitier Movies

SIdni Poitier’s death in January was one of the year’s most upsetting celebrity losses. The living luminaries of classic Hollywood cinema are few and far between, and Poitiers was the key link between that era and the industry’s more progressive present. This sense of disconnection with the past is driven by Sydney (Apple TV+), a new documentary made with him shortly before his death. Directed by veteran black director Reginald Hudlin, it’s a warm, generous portrait, if not particularly insightful, best serving as an example to younger audiences of Poitier’s pioneering status as a leading man in white-run Hollywood.

Talking heads like Oprah Winfrey attest to his famous dignity and diplomacy in a no-frills symbolic position, as well as the fiery screen charisma that drew conservative audiences to then-adventure films about American racial inequality. Sydney is unsurprisingly more cautious when it comes to accommodating Poitier’s critics, smoothing over some nuances in his relationship with the civil rights movement, and gesturing to James Baldwin’s thoughts on Poitier as a problematic illuminated figure without including the writer’s actual arguments . Poitier’s own presence is the film’s strongest asset: his account of his poor upbringing in the Bahamas and his first encounters with Jim Crow racism in America is moving and resonant, that wonderful voice reaching and teaching the audience one last time.

Sidney Poitier and Glenn Ford talking on a blackboard jungle staircase
Livewire turn: with Glenn Ford on Blackboard Jungle. Rex/Shutterstock

Hopefully, Hudlin’s documentary will lead uninitiated viewers to Poitier’s fascinating filmography—starting with a compelling appearance by a young county hospital doctor facing racial hatred in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s extraordinary political noir There is no way out (Apple TV), in some ways a harder and bolder film than the films with liberal messages that Poitier made as a bigger star. Other notable early credits of his – incl The end of the town, Something of value and even to Otto Preminger Porgy and Bess – are frustratingly unavailable for legal streaming, but you can see his livewire transformation into a gifted, rebellious student in the influential classroom drama Blackboard Jungle (Amazon Prime).

Full stardom came with his rousing partnership with Tony Curtis in the prison break drama Friend The unruly (another title inexplicably absent from streaming services), a more muscular film and a role than the one that eventually earned him a historic Oscar – the brilliant but toothless Lilies of the field (Apple TV), which isn’t averse to “magical negro” stereotypes in its story of an itinerant worker who helps a group of European nuns build a chapel.

Films that feature Poitiers in predominantly black-populated stories – such as Porgy and Bess and the thrilling social-realistic family drama Raisin in the sun (Amazon Prime) – has never done so well for him. Poitier’s career turned increasingly to films in which he was a lone black figure of integration and oppression, culminating in a trio of box office hits in 1967. Pitting Poitier’s charm against the coolness of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, the interracial romance Guess who’s coming to dinner (Google Play) is now the loudest of them all, with the set in London To sir, with love (Apple TV), which turned Poitier Blackboard Jungle role, making him a teacher of unruly youth, equally naïve and sentimental, but far more engaging. Laconic and taut, with a sturdy foil for Poitier in Rod Steiger’s racist police chief, the Oscar-laden Southern detective drama In the middle of the night (Apple TV) remains the best of them all.

Poitiers with Katharine Houghton, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Poitiers with Katharine Houghton, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Features of Rex

This year marks the peak of Poitier’s career, which has slowed in the post-civil rights era. At least one replay of it In the middle of the night role in the smaller They call me Mr. Tibbs! (Google Play), The 1970s were scarce for iconic roles, but Poitier turned to directing, often showing a lightness and humor in his own films that Hollywood hadn’t really considered. The exciting black western Buck and the Preacher (Amazon Prime), the tender romantic melodrama Warm December (Amazon Prime) and the frantic farce Stir Crazy (Chili’s) all hold up, albeit Bill Cosby’s unwatchable fantasy Ghost Dad (Apple TV if you dare) was a career low. And even after Poitier became only the most accidental actor of the 1980s, the untroubled star turned into films as the sly hacker caper Sneakers (Amazon) were reminders of what Hollywood had and, for all the adoration, perhaps never fully appreciated.

Also new to streaming and DVD

(Warner Bros.)
Rarely has the musical biopic genre, starved for inspiration, been a perfect match for creator and subject like Baz Luhrmann and Elvis Presley—two great, earnest showmen unafraid to curb excess or bad taste in pursuit of their audience. Exciting, sometimes jarring, and ultimately very moving, this exploration of celebrity life as constant, moving editing shifts and slips from time to time, but more often connects spectacularly, through Luhrmann’s brilliant aesthetic and Austin Butler’s megawatt performance.

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley.
“Megawatt” Austin Butler as Elvis Presley. Alami

Famed for propulsive, provocative music videos for MIA and Justice, Romain Gavras – son of Greek auteur Costa-Gavras – had yet to make a feature film with equivalent buzz and excitement. That changes with this technically thrilling, politically charged action film about the uprising of the Parisian banlieue against wanton police brutality. Co-authored by Les Misérables director Ladj Ly, it’s something of a reverse take on this film, its perspective driven by the victims rather than the authorities, and with the film’s shooting dialed up to 11: some amazingly choreographed long takes here could be timeless.

(Picture House)
Justin Kurzel’s chilling, exacting anatomy of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania – the largest mass shooting in modern Australian history – takes a big risk by focusing on the perpetrator, exploring the mental illness and domestic upheaval that led to it to the event. It Pays Off: A character study that manages the tricky balance between amorality and compassion, it rests on harrowing performances from Caleb Landry Jones as Bryant and Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia as his increasingly desperate parents.

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