Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, an unemployed man from British Guiana who has been living in California. He has a degree in engineering, and comes to the East End of London to seek work while he waits for a job in his field to come through. He is assigned to teach a rowdy group of students who have been rejected from other schools.Thackeray remains calm despite the students’ behaviour, and eventually (of course) he wins them over.
It is one of three films that Poitier did in 1967, all of which were huge successes. Of the three, To Sir With Love, directed by James Clavell, is the weakest—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night far surpass it in quality and content. Nevertheless, he gives an excellent performance despite the script being sentimental and clichéd. The “students” all look much too old to be in high school, as is typical of film teenagers but also teenagers in the ’60s just looked older. Singer Lulu made her film debut in To Sir With Love, and achieved a pop hit with the theme song. And as is typical in films at the time, the theme song reappears over and over.
At the time of the film, Poitier was already the best-known Black actor on the planet, and a huge star worldwide—arguably the biggest at that time, as he bridged the gap between “old” and “new” Hollywood. This emerges in the way the students interact with him and the cast looked up to him in real life. The film revolves a series of set-piece confrontations between Poitier and the students, and these are the strongest segments of the film.
The ridiculous dance scene at the end comes off as dated, but is still a key pivot point and a riot to watch. Modern viewers may also find Poitier’s use of the word “slut” to describe female students problematic, but at the time the word was often used to just mean a sloppy, lazy girl.
The film was made on next to no money, because the studio didn’t want to fund it. When Poitier was attached, they green-lighted the script but with just a budget just over $500,000 budget—even then quite small for a Hollywood production. Luckily, the school setting and the high production values available in the UK helped to save the day.
During its intitial release it was banned in South Africa for showing an integrated school with a Black man in a position of respect. In the US, it was such a hit that Columbia actually commissioned market research to find out why. What they learned was that Poitier was a true box office draw. There was a sequel many years later, a made-for-TV movie directed by Peter Bogdanovich with had Poitier reprising his role along with some of the other cast.
This Powerhouse Films re-release is in a dual-format with Blu-Ray and DVD. The special features include commentary from actress Judy Eason, moderated by the US firm Twilight Time (who did the US release) and a commentary from book author E.R. Braithwaite—who is, amazingly, still alive at 104. Incidentally, the original book was semi-autobiographical and much darker (set in post-war London rather than the “Swinging Sixties”). Special features include over an hour of interviews with cast and crew, and a featurette about the Sixties with Lulu and another actor. There is also an image gallery and the isolate score, plus a booklet with a new essay on the film by BFI’s Tega Okiti.