To Sir, with Love (1967) was the highest grossing film of Sidney Poitier’s career.
Similar to Lilies of the Field, it was a film no one expected to succeed. No one, that is, except Sidney Poitier, and a few other visionaries who saw the potential in this story about an inspirational teacher.
With To Sir, with Love, Sidney reached the peak of his success, proving himself one of the most popular actors in America. But not long after the film’s release, Sidney would see his image and vision to produce uplifting entertainment derided as black nationalists and separatists found voices in the media.
These segments of the black community were disenchanted with the non-violent, civil disobedience methods of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which they believed moved too slowly towards racial equality. By the tenants of the Black Power movement, namely the Black Panther Party, Sidney Poitier films, which championed brotherhood, non-violence, and integration, were out. They deemed Sidney an “Uncle Tom.”
And he’d be called much worse.
Let’s go through the plot of To Sir, with Love. Then we’ll go behind the scenes and cover the extreme career highs and lows Sidney Poitier experienced shortly after its release.
It’s 1960s London. Sidney is Mark Thackeray, an engineer who can’t seem to get the engineering job he so desperately seeks.
Mark decides to become a teacher until an engineering position comes through. He’s hired at a school in a poor, East London neighborhood. The students at Mark’s new school are disadvantaged and unmotivated, rejects from other schools. Many of these youths have already had run-ins with the law.
Mark’s new students are all upper-classmen, just trying to get through their last year of required schooling before going out into the real world. Their terrible attitudes and classroom antics have already led several teachers to resign.
Mark tries his best to engage his students, despite their behavior. It takes a lot for Mark to lose his temper, but he finally does when the girls in his class burn a sanitary napkin over the heater. It’s gross, disrespectful, and Mark officially loses it.
The angry Mark doesn’t mince words, and the students are scared into listening to him.
A Change of Curriculum
Mark uses his students’ momentary fear to veer from traditional school curriculum. He tells his class that from now on, in his classroom, they’ll learn in an adult fashion that will prepare them for the real world.
Mark encourages his students to ask questions about anything they want. He also makes a new rule that all students will address him, and each other, with respect, using “Sir” and “Miss,” instead of nicknames and disrespectful slurs.
With these changes, Mark sees almost immediate results. Emboldened, he arranges a fieldtrip for his students to the Victoria and Albert Museum after they express interest in viewing the exhibits.
A Complete Transformation
By the day of the field trip, there’s been a complete transformation in Mark’s students. They come to school well-dressed and groomed, excited for their day at the museum.
It’s an emotional scene. No one has encouraged these kids in their education until “Sir.” Now, thanks to Sir’s care and guidance, the students finally see how stimulating the world of education and learning can be.
Sir talks to his students about love and marriage. He urges them to disregard mean gossip, treat everyone as equals, not judge by skin color, and to work hard:
“The point is if you’re prepared to work hard you can do almost anything. You can get any job you want.”
It’s an important message Sir’s students have never been encouraged to believe. And with graduation fast approaching, Sir realizes it’s even more crucial to inspire his students to dream and set goals for the future.
Sir momentarily loses favor with the class when one of his students attempts to use violence to solve a problem with another teacher. It’s an unpopular lesson that Sir must teach, but he teaches it nonetheless:
“You’re missing the point, you all are. In a few weeks you will be going out into the world. Are you going to use a weapon every time someone makes you angry? You’re supposed to be learning self-discipline here…are you a man or a hoodlum?”
To Sir, with Love
By the end of the school year, Sir has unquestionably earned the love and respect of his students. He’s inspired them to work hard at their educations, careers, and futures; to be open-minded, and avoid racial prejudices.
Sir has effectively called his class to their:
“duty to change the world, if you can. Not by violence, peacefully. Individually, not as a mob.”
With the end of the school year, Sir finally receives the engineering job offer he’s waited for. But he realizes that his gifts are better used teaching and inspiring young lives.
Sir stays on at the school, and continues to influence new students to work hard, dream big, and believe in their own potential.
And that’s the end of the film.
To Sir, with Love: Lillies of the Field Part II?
Based on E.R. Braithwaite’s novel of the same name, To Sir, with Love was a project Sidney Poitier was excited about. But similar to Lilies of the Field, no studio wanted to make Braithwaite’s story into a film. Studio executives worried that American audiences wouldn’t be interested in a movie about English teens. And, as Sidney himself added, most Hollywood producers viewed the storyline of To Sir, with Love as:
“Too soft, too sweet, too sentimental, and most of all too special.”
Eventually, Columbia Pictures bought the film rights. But the studio still refused to give To Sir, with Love a proper budget, allotting the production a mere $750,000.
So, again similar to Lilies of the Field, Sidney agreed to another risky pay arrangement: no salary this time, just 10 percent of the gross. It was a great deal if To Sir, with Love was successful, but a terrible deal if the film failed.
To Sir, with Love: A Great Character
Of course, Sidney had learned from his experience filming Lilies of the Field that taking personal and financial risks on projects he believed in could yield incredible results: Lilies had brought Sidney not only great financial success, but his groundbreaking Best Actor Oscar.
But it was more than the prospect of incredible rewards that made Sidney willing to gamble on To Sir, with Love.
On reading the script, Sidney was immediately drawn to the role of Mark Thackery. “Sir” was a character who rose from nothing, and accomplished great things. As we learn from Mark in the film, growing up, he was:
“very poor. And there was something within me that wanted an education. And so I put all of my energies into that.”
We further learn that in pursuit of this education, Sir took on menial labor jobs, including washing dishes. This shocks his students. As one boy in his class incredulously exclaims:
“You washed dishes, Sir? But you talk posh and all!”
To which Mark responds,
“Yes, well that wasn’t easy.”
Is there anyone that Sir reminds you of? Paying his dues washing dishes as he works his way up to his dream job? Educating himself and learning how to talk beautifully along the way?
It’s a page straight out of the life of Sidney Poitier.
Never forget that Sidney Poitier worked long and hard for his success. Sidney knew poverty in the Bahamas, prejudice in Florida, and homelessness in New York. He washed dishes for years to make ends meet, educating himself, and learning to speak English without a Bahamian accent along the way. All so Sidney could make his dreams of an acting career a reality.
Sidney Poitier saw the uncanny parallels between himself and To Sir, with Love’s Mark Thackeray. And it contributed to his investment in the film, and his mastery of the role.
Top of the Heap
On its release in the summer of 1967, To Sir, with Love became another surprise Sidney Poitier hit.
By the end of 1967, To Sir, with Love had earned an astonishing $7.2 million at the box office, making it the highest grossing film of Sidney’s career.
Even more impressively, To Sir, with Love was just one of three smash films Sidney starred in that year. Rounding out the trio of 1967 Poitier blockbusters were In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
The success of all three films was shattering. So much so that Columbia Pictures initiated a Gallup poll to see just why these three films beat the pants off of just about every other movie released that year.
Of course, the answer was Sidney Poitier.
The poll showed that Sidney topped the list of an elite group of actors whose films the public would pay to see on the basis of their star power alone.
In other words, audiences would pay to see a Sidney Poitier film simply because it starred Sidney Poitier.
At a time when many hearts had yet to be softened towards racial equality, Sidney Poitier was beloved by audiences of all colors.
That’s absolutely remarkable.
Two More Barriers Down
In addition to his three hit films, Sidney Poitier broke two other barriers in 1967: he became the first black actor to imprint his hand and footprints in the cement at Graumen’s Chinese Theater, as well as the first black actor to form a major production company, E&R Productions, named after his parents, Evelyn and Reginald.
Criticism of the Poitier Image
Unfortunately, when you’re at the top, the only place to go is down.
The wide release of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1968 coincided with the increasing fragmentation of the Civil Rights Movement, as black nationalists and separatists found voices in the media. These segments of the black community were disenchanted with the non-violent, civil disobedience methods of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which they believed moved too slowly towards racial equality. By the tenants of the Black Power movement, namely the Black Panther Party, Sidney Poitier films, which championed brotherhood, non-violence, and integration, were out. They deemed Sidney an “Uncle Tom.” And he’d be called much worse.
Sidney Poitier summarized his career and image during this rapidly changing time:
“1968 was a time of incredible conflict and contrast…given the quickly changing social currents, there was more than a little dissatisfaction rising up against me in certain corners of the black community…
The issue boiled down to why I wasn’t more angry and confrontational. New voices were speaking for African Americans, and in new ways…Stokely Carmichael…the Black Panthers. According to a certain taste that was coming into ascendancy at the time, I was an ‘Uncle Tom,’…for playing roles that were nonthreatening to white audiences…In essence, I was being taken to task for playing exemplary human beings.”
Through this difficult period, Sidney stuck to his ideals, refusing to bend his values and principles to appease his critics.
And eventually, things turned around.