1. Lilies of the Field. Sidney Poitier won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Homer Smith, a drifter who stops to get water for his car at a southwestern farm run by German nuns. What Homer doesn't know is that the nuns believe he is the answer to their prayers--that he will build a chapel for them even though they have no money nor materials for the building. Often described as a feel-good movie, Lilies of the Field far exceeds that simple label with its inspirational message about faith and finding meaning in one's life. Poitier is at his most charming as Homer, a stubborn man who resists building the chapel initially. When he finally relents, he doesn't want anyone to help him. His scenes with the equally firm Mother Maria (beautifully played by Lilia Skala) are not to be missed.
2. The Defiant Ones. This 1958 classic helped define the term "high concept film" with a terrific premise about two escaped convicts--still shackled together--trying to escape a posse in the South. Not only do these men hate each other, but one is white (Tony Curtis), the other is black (Poitier), and racism is rampant around them. Poitier gives a dynamic performance as the persevering Noah Cullen and his hard work seems to inspire Curtis, who turns in one of the finest acting jobs of his career, too.
3. In the Heat of the Night. This racially-charged mystery, 1968’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, has aged gracefully over the years. The secret to its success can be attributed to its many layers. Peel back the mystery plot and you have a potent examination of racial tension in the South in the 1960s. Peel that back and you have a rich character study of two lonely police detectives, from completely different backgrounds, who gradually earn each other’s respect. Sidney Poitier has his most famous best role as the intelligent, proud, (and perhaps somewhat prejudiced) police detective Virgil Tibbs. He skillfully underplays the part, so that when Tibbs strikes a rich white man (a controversial scene at the time) or flashes his anger toward Rod Steiger's redneck sheriff, those scenes catch fire. Amazingly, Poitier was not Oscar nominated, perhaps because his votes were split among three memorable 1967 performances: In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and To Sir, With Love. He reprised the Tibbs role twice in the lesser efforts They Call Me MISTER Tibbs and The Organization.
4. To Sir, With Love. In a role seemingly tailored for him, Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a young engineer looking for a job. Unable to find one in his chosen profession, he accepts temporary employment as a teacher in an inner-city London school. It’s a bleak situation—the students are out of control, most of the teachers are burned out, and the school reflects the poverty of the surrounding neighborhood. Cynics criticize To Sir, With Love as simple-minded and obvious. Perhaps it is, but Poitier helps put the story across with such conviction and professionalism that it’s impossible to ignore its many charms. In particular, a subplot involving an attractive student (Judy Geeson) who develops a crush on Thackeray is handled impeccably.
5. A Patch of Blue. A constant thread throughout these five films is that a focal point of each is the relationship between two characters of starkly different backgrounds. In A Patch of Blue, Poitier plays an educated working man who befriends a blind young woman (Elizabeth Hartman) who lives with her abusive prostitute mother (Shelley Winters). A Patch of Blue could have easily veered into a "message picture" showing that love is literally blind. However, Poitier and Hartman bring a genuine quality to their performances, making their growing friendship believable and pulling us into their world. Just watch Poitier's face when Hartman's character confesses her love for him. That is the kind of scene that made Sidney Poitier a star.
Honorable Mention: Edge of the City; A Raisin in the Sun; Blackboard Jungle; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; and Brother John.