Marvel’s Black Panther is deemed revolutionary in its portrayal of a black superhero. And in some ways, it is – Chadwick Boseman’s performance is powerful, measured, and iconic. However, the truth remains that there was a black superhero film years before Marvel’s 2018 hit. The lead character, played by Sidney Poiter, didn’t wear a cape. But he hit all the superhero cylinders, regardless. The movie in question is the Sidney Poitier-led To Sir with Love.
Sidney Poitier as the Role Model
To Sir with Love follows Mark Thackary, a young black man who aspires to get a good engineering job. In the meantime, however, Thackary must settle to teach an undisciplined class in London’s East End. As the film progresses, Thackary slowly manages to turn the chaos into order. However, it is not without trial and tribulation – Thackary must deal with the personal issues of his students and neutralize their bad behaviors in order to instill the discipline they lack.
The subject matter is intense, but the movie proved to be a hit. The movie drew in $42,432,803 at the American Box Office and $19,100,000 in rentals. This is incredible when you realize To Sir with Love was made on a $$640,000 budget. Heck, the executives at Columbia Pictures, who financed the film, were surprised by its success, especially in the United States.
You see, film executives were not sold on the film’s premise at first. They thought that Americans, in particular, wouldn’t be able to understand the Cockney lingo. However, Sidney Poiter had fought to get the movie made for years. Eventually, Poiter made a deal with the executives at Columbia Pictures – accepting a small fee but taking shares in the profits. Given To Sir with Love‘s outstanding success, the gamble paid off. Both Poiter and the movie’s director James Clavelle made a fortune.
How did To Sir with Love succeed?
One can speculate a great deal about how To Sir with Love succeeded. After all, how on Earth did an English film with Cockney speak and a focus on the British lower-class thrive in the American market? Well, one reason is often cited – Sidney Poitier. Simply put, the Bahamian-born actor had great star appeal. The 1967 Virgin Film Guide says Poitier manages to “come across as a real person, while simultaneously embodying everything there is to know about morality, respect, and integrity.”
Perhaps, one might speculate, it’s also the movie’s sentimental, optimistic message. The movie gives its student characters a great deal of development, turning them from lazy, disorderly delinquents into motivated, disciplined young adults. This is, of course, down to Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackary, who acts as an almost-omnipotent father figure to his students. In many ways, the movie is a perfect fit for America’s attitude of hope and optimism and the American Dream.
However, not everybody bought To Sir with Love‘s hopeful message. Many critics derided the movie’s plot, with the Halliwell Film Guide calling it “sentimental non-realism.” Meanwhile, the Time Out Film Guide complained that the film “bears no resemblance to school life as we know it” and the “hoodlums’ miraculous reformation a week before the end of term (thanks to teacher Poitier) is laughable.” Indeed, you will seldom see a British school film depict the school system as a sentimental, positive experience as this one does.
Untrue to the Novel
However, it wasn’t just some of the British press who disliked Sidney Poiter’s adaptation of To Sir with Love. In fact, the movie earned the disdain of its source material’s author. E. W. Braithwaite, who penned the original 1959 novel, felt the movie took away the biggest themes of his work. Namely, racism in British society.
You see, in the novel, the main character – Ricky Braithwaite – engages in an interracial romance with a white teacher. The novel explores the divide between black and white, and Braithwaite thought the romance was integral to the plot. In his mind, the relationship between Ricky and love interest Gillian represented his protagonist’s escape from isolation as a black man in a ‘white’ society.
Now, Braithwaite couldn’t completely dismiss To Sir with Love. After all, its success cast a spotlight on his novel and increased sales. Yet, even despite the financial security it rewarded him, Braithwaite couldn’t shake off his dislike of the 1967 adaptation. For him, it betrayed the deep solemnity of his semi-biographical work and the story it was trying to tell. Compared to Braithwaite’s examination of black British society, the movie sometimes feels somewhat shallow. In the movie, the protagonist’s race is only touched upon in a small number of scenes. In comparison, the protagonist’s race – and how it affects his relationships – is the focus.
The Legacy of To Sir with Love
That said, Braithwaite’s criticisms don’t deny the film its cultural impact. To Sir with Love was a massive success and further amplified Poitier’s career trajectory. In the same year, the Bahamian-American actor starred in two other hits, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the latter of which explored interracial marriage through comedy. The movie was one of three in 1967, which rocketed Sidney Poitier to greater heights of fame.
And despite the criticisms levied against it, To Sir with Love remains a positive portrayal of a black person – arguably a role model. At the end of the movie, Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackary rips up his long-awaited engineering job offer, having found his true passion as a teacher. Given the racial tensions brewing in Britain and America at the time, having a black character embody values of selflessness, respect and discipline surely could only have been a good thing. Art that serves to empower a marginalized community and erase inaccurate stereotypes shows how much power Art has.
And when that art is accompanied by the beautiful voice of Scottish singer Lulu singing its titular theme, that’s just a bonus. The song ‘To Sir with Love’ topped the charts around the time of the movie’s release in the UK and US. This is far more than what can be said of her song ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ for the eponymously-named 1974 James Bond flick. It’s a beauty of a power ballad – and To Sir with Love is a beautiful, beautiful movie showcasing Sidney Poitier’s acting talents.
What are your memories of To Sir with Love – and what is your favorite Sidney Poitier movie?