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To Sir with Love - Lulu

In January, I was slowly working through the annual queue of yuletide demises, when there were distractions and I lingered on the tragic passing of the wonderful Ronnie Spector. February came and Russia invaded Ukraine and the remainder, already overdue, were put on hold. Which was a shame, as I meant to remember the great Sidney Poitier who died on January 6th, at the age of 94.

Poitier was a Bahamian who had the good fortune to be born unexpectedly in Miami, Florida, and therefore, later, to have the option of taking American nationality. It might not have turned out to be so lucky as he was born three months prematurely, and was in intensive care for those first three months.

Later this citizenship was invaluable as he began to establish himself as an actor, first on the New York stage and then in Hollywood where he secured progressively bigger rolls culminating in a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Poitier for his role in 1958's "The Defiant Ones" as an escapee from a chain gang, shackled to the white Tony Curtis and, in 1963, actually winning the Best Actor Oscar for "Lilies of the Field", the first "actor of colour" to do so. But it was the three films he made in 1967 that established him as a permanent Hollywood great, "In the Heat of the Night" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" both exploring the subject of racism at a time when civil rights were becoming a major issue in the US.

The first of the three, however, "To Sir, with Love" is a social drama in which racism does occur, but is not the story's main subject matter. In fact it occurs almost in passing. Poitier's first major success eleven years earlier had been in the role of a disaffected miscreant and gang leader student in the school drama "The Blackboard Jungle". Here, he reverses the role, playing an inspiring teacher to a class of no-hope, working class schoolchildren, transforming them into thoughtful and socially aware adults with promising futures. The extraordinary thing about this film is that, by almost ignoring the fact that his character, Mr Thackeray, is black, it is able to make the case for racial equality the more successfully. Certainly, a fellow teacher is constantly making not unfriendly "you chaps" style generalisations to him, and his class intend to boycott a classmate's father's funeral because his family is mixed race, but don't, and that's about it. It's obviously unrealistic to imagine that an East End, class of predominantly white students in the 1960's were not going to subject their teacher to a certain amount of racist abuse, but that would have undermined the point of the movie. Poitier's portrayal of Thackeray is suffused with intelligence and dignity, the character earning the respect not only of his tearaway students, his staff colleagues, but also of us his audience, black or white.

The film was based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by E.R. Braithwaite. Ironically, Braithwaite said he "detested" the film that effectively assured his fame as an author, precisely because it was too sentimental, skirting the race issues that were more prevalent in the book. But by playing down the more contentious issues of racism in the novel, Poitier and director James Clavell, were able to better sell the heroic, dignified, intelligent Thackeray to a wider world.

The film was a UK hit but, surprisingly, was a much bigger success in the US, finishing as the sixth biggest grossing movie of 1967. Perhaps it was due to the novelty of seeing the inside of a London inner city school, but much more likely it was the acting of Sidney Poitier. The soundtrack song of the movie, sung by Lulu, reached number one in the US and was the best selling single of the year. In Britain, bizarrely, it was hidden away as the B-side of Lulu's very forgettable minor hit "Let's Pretend". The song bookcases the movie, being played over the opening credits, and then sung "live" to "Sir" in a tearjerking finale at the end-of-year class dance by Lulu, who has a role in the film as one of the class, and the school band played by the Mindbenders.

Up until the arrival of Poitier, the only black stars of Hollywood movies were people who had first achieved fame as musicians such as Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davies Jr, and were therefore seldom given demanding or important roles. Poitier's success changed all that, and had an incredible impact across the world. For many, many black people, to see a black man performing in Hollywood movies with an insight and dignity that was almost magisterial was an inspiration to them not only as actors but in their daily lives, some say in almost everything they did, in a world that was set against them. To white people, he was proof, if they didn't already know it, that the African American could be as decent, as intelligent and as sophisticated as any of them, if not more so.


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