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Sidney Poitier must have enjoyed 1967. He starred in three of the top-grossing films of that year, all of which still stand as prime examples of topical, mid-1960s commercial filmmaking. Although In the Heat of the Night (1967) would go on to win an Oscar® for Best Picture, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) tackled the controversial topic of interracial romance and racism among the American elite, many people still feel that the most effective picture of the three is To Sir, with Love, a bittersweet slice of life set in working-class England. The movie was a modestly budgeted production, with Poitier working for virtually nothing, and few people felt it had a chance of becoming a box-office hit. But Poitier, writer-director James Clavell, and Columbia Pictures president Mike Frankovich believed in the little project that could, and landed a small place in film history for their commitment.
Poitier plays Mark Thackeray (the "Sir" of the title), a young teacher who is forced to accept a job in a run-down-school on London's east side. Thackeray isn't happy about his assignment, and things go from bad to worse when he discovers that his students - in the time honored tradition of classroom movies -- are a bunch of surly jokers who couldn't care less about getting an education. Although many of the school's teachers have already surrendered hope, Thackeray decides that the only way to reach such students is to throw away the books and give them tough love, forcing them to learn self-respect and respect for the people around them. Once he has taught them that, the book learning can begin. The degree to which "Sir" turns the kids' lives around may be overly simplified and idealistic, but the film is brimming with strong performances and memorable scenes. It's definitely a crowd-pleaser.
By 1967, Poitier had developed a familiar screen persona which was so loaded with dignity, common sense, and quiet humor that many people were beginning to complain. Even The New York Times published an editorial questioning whether Poitier's innate level-headedness was what America really needed to see in an African-American actor. Surely, given the often violent struggle for equality that was playing out in streets across the country, a little more rage was in order. But one has to remember that Poitier was holding the banner for black America as its sole leading man - one misstep, and doors that had opened could slam shut.
The dignity Poitier projected not only served his characters well, but paved the way for scores of African-American performers who would follow in his footsteps. It's interesting to note that, after the film's opening sequences, Poitier's race barely receives a nod of recognition in To Sir, with Love. "Sir" is presented as an intelligent man who's trying to do the right thing for some fellow human beings. The color of his skin is all but inconsequential, a turn of events that would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. In that sense, this modest film was groundbreaking.
Even though To Sir, with Love is usually viewed as a textbook Sidney Poitier vehicle, the actor has always felt that the entire cast deserved credit for the film's success. Nay-sayers at the studio believed that one of the many problems with E.R. Braithwaite's novel, which was adapted for the screen by James Clavell, was its working class British setting - and even Poitier had some second thoughts when confronted with the actual cast members. "The first time I met the young actors who were to represent the East London incorrigibles," he writes in his recent autobiography, This Life, "I was hard pressed to imagine them being anything other than real delinquents."
Eventually, Poitier grew to love his castmates, and was most impressed with a young actress named Lulu, who was about to launch a successful pop music career in England. "When I discovered (Lulu) could sing and dance too," he writes, "I was saddened at the thought of such a delightful and talented youngster going to waste on those mean deprived streets of East London. Little did I know that, with her round little face and her sparkling talent and energy, she was well on her way to becoming a national treasure."
The theme to To Sir, with Love, which Lulu so memorably warbles in one of the film's pivotal scenes, served as her launching pad to stardom. Written by Don Black and Mark London, it went on to top Billboard's Hot 100 chart for five weeks in 1967, and would become the number one single of the year. That's pretty impressive when one considers that the Summer of Love was also the summer of such earth-shaking new music as The Doors ("Light My Fire"), Jefferson Airplane ("Somebody to Love," "White Rabbit"), & The Who ("I Can See For Miles"). Like the movie it represents, the theme from To Sir, with Love might be a sentimental one hit wonder, but it's endearing, and people continue to embrace it.
Director: James Clavell
Producer: James Clavell
Screenplay: James Clavell (based on the novel by E.R. Braithwaite)
Cinematography: Paul Beeson
Editing: Peter Thornton
Music Composer: Ron Grainer
Music Director: Philip Martell
Art Design: Tony Woollard
Set Design: Ian Whittaker
Makeup: Jill Carpenter
Cast: Sidney Poitier (Mark Thackeray), Christian Roberts (Denham), Judy Geeson (Pamela Dare), Suzy Kendall (Gillian Blanchard), Lulu (Barbara Pegg), Faith Brook (Mrs. Evans), Geoffrey Bayldon (Weston), Edward Burnham (Florian), Gareth Robinson (Tich), Grahame Charles (Fernman), Roger Shepherd (Buckley), Patricia Routledge (Clinty), Mona Bruce (Josie Dawes), Fiona Duncan (Miss Phillips).
by Paul Tatara