To Sir, with Love (1967)
Twelve years before the release of To Sir, with Love, Sidney Poitier found himself in another teacher movie. That movie was Blackboard Jungle (1955, my write-up here). Sidney was twenty-eight at the release of Blackboard Jungle and played one of the leaders in a classroom mostly full of delinquents. Wow, a twenty-eight year old playing a high schooler, they haven’t done ever since! Fast-forward to 1967 and Sidney would be forty at the time of To Sir, with Love's release. This time, the man who would break down color barriers in film in more than just one country would be the teacher.
1967 would be Poitier’s powerhouse year - starring in this film, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for In the Heat of the Night, and playing alongside Kathy Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in his final movie for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner - a film that remakred on interracial marriage in America.
In the film, Poitier plays engineer Mark Thackeray (he’ll be referenced to as, “Sir” by the students throughout), who has been searching for jobs in Britain for months and decides upon teaching in order to get some legal tender. Misfit teacher? Check. Unruly students? You bet your life! The film takes place in London’s troubled East End and the students - played by Judy Geeson, Suzy Kendall, Lulu, Geoffrey Bayldon, and so many more - all haven’t had the easiest of lives. Unorthodox kids calling for unorthodox measures? Triple check.
But the unorthodox measures Sir employs is more reminisent of the tough love offered by Edward James Olmos’ performance in 1988’s Stand and Deliver than the nurturing seen in Robin Williams’ performance in Dead Poets Society the year after. Where Olmos had an inner-city spunk and street knowledge to his performance, Poitier brings the aspects that we all expect from Poitier. His charisma, class, and dignity are laced in his teaching (and acting) as he throws away the textbooks and allows the students to ask questions of any subject to him. Sex, marriage, race, loneliness, parents, death - any topic is fair game. Through these lessons, they’re taught a sense of regard for themselves and their peers and a level of wisdom that’s needs for any smidget of intelligence.
It’s formulaic as you would expect from any teacher with only the performance of Sidney Poitier making this film worth watching. Race is one undercurrent in the film as when one of the student’s mother dies, none of the white students can afford to be seen giving his family a wreath of flowers as that student is from a, “colored” family. The film is dated in that sense, along with Sir’s use of the word, “slut” in a certain scene. Poitier’s three performances in 1967 and his entire filmography came under attack by the far left and the far right for not being, “angry” enough. The Civil Rights was escalating that year into a landmark 1968 and extremists thought - for their own political reasons - Poitier’s performances needed rage to accompany their fights in their respective narratives. However, Poitier realized he was the only minority actor who could acquire leading roles in Hollywood and one inflammatory remark, one inflammatory role could set back African-Americans and other minorities another few decades for more equal job opportunities in moviemaking.
He realized one need not shout in order to get the messages across. In Sir we have a character who has seen a lifetime’s worth of poverty, racial injustice, and scrapping for his own self-betterment. A man who has reached that far can only have done so with the utmost integrity and ability - Poitier as an actor had both of these, combined with his innate gentleness. Sir teaches these values back to his students and the payoff is inspirational to watch - because why are teacher movies anything but inspirational?
And, of course, there’s the schoolgirl crush on Sir that is the heart of the second half of the film by Judy Geeson’s character. Credit director/producer/writer James Clavell from avoiding excessive doses of sentimentality in this relationship keeping things realistic and believable. The crush is not as strong as the Rowena-Mr. Holland thingamajig in Mr. Holland’s Opus nor does it contain the nuance and - dare I say it - deep seeds of regret of that aforementioned relationship.
For a portrait of London youth in the 1960s, look no further than To Sir, with Love. Some of my British followers and friends might be able to think of some more qualified, more appropriate candidates for such an examination though.
Columbia Pictures was baffled at the fact that they had distributed the #8 highest-grossing film of the year and could find no reasons why it was as successful as it was. Surely, the British accents threw people off? American audiences couldn’t understand the British class system and British society? What in hell made so many non-Brits go see To Sir, with Love? Columbia conducted a small group study and saw that the overwhelming reason folks saw the film was simply because Sidney Poitier was in it.
Times and people - from crayons to perfume - were changing. The reasons why people still adore To Sir, with Love have not.
My rating: 7/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating.