Sidney Poitier Essay - Critical Essays

Poitier, Sidney


Sidney Poitier 1924?–

Black American film director and actor.

Poitier's most successful films as a director are entertaining comedies geared toward a family audience. In his autobiography, This Life, Poitier vigorously expressed his concern over the content of Blaxploitation films popular during the early 1970s. Poitier contends that black youths exposed to a constant stream of black actors and actresses portraying drug pushers, pimps, and prostitutes might idolize these characters. Poitier's films are seen as refreshing alternatives to these violent works.

Poitier's first film, Buck and the Preacher, is a semihistorical account of the emigration of ex-slaves to the western frontier. Although the film contains predictable conflicts between the settlers and ex-Confederate soldiers, most critics believe that Poitier added fresh insight to the genre of "the Western." Uptown Saturday Night is the first of a series of comedies directed by Poitier. This film combines slapstick and farce in its story of two friends in search of a stolen lottery ticket. Many critics feel that Poitier's casting of top black performers such as Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor contributed to the critical success of both Uptown Saturday Night and its sequel, Let's Do It Again. A Piece of the Action is considered Poitier's weakest film. Some critics find condescending his intention to promote self-improvement ideals to black youths. In Stir Crazy, Poitier's most popular film, his role as director was overshadowed by the performances of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.

Poitier is well known as an actor and he received an Academy Award in 1964 for his performance in Lilies of the Field. In contrast to the seriousness of his dramatic roles, Poitier has directed films that emphasize social values less than the universal need to laugh.

Vincent Canby

"Buck and the Preacher," Sidney Poitier's first film as director as well as star, is a loose, amiable, post-Civil War Western with a firm though not especially severe Black Conscience. The film is aware of contemporary black issues but its soul is on the plains once ridden by Tom Mix, whom Poitier, astride his galloping horse, his jaw set, somehow resembles in the majestic traveling shots given him by the director….

"Buck and the Preacher" is … a perfectly ordinary example of the kind of Western that seeks to prove that the West was not lily-white. The movie West, of course, has never been completely lily-white. There have always been a certain number of Indians horsing around, scalping, drinking, shooting, getting shot, and being poorly dealt with by just about everybody, including the movie makers.

For the most part, however, blacks showed up on the frontier only as servants or, occasionally, as outcasts and loners, most notably in [John] Ford's "Sergeant Rutledge" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." If they do nothing else, these new Soul Westerns may serve to desegregate our myths, which have always been out of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

Vincent Canby, in his review of "Buck and the Preacher," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 29, 1972 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1971–1972, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1972, p. 254).

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

[Maya Angelou once claimed that] "Black men talk about change when what they really mean is exchange. They want to take over the positions of power white men have." Certainly Buck and the Preacher, the title characters in the new Sidney Poitier-Harry Belafonte film, would agree. The themes of exchange are obviously what appealed to Mr. Poitier when he chose the script for this black Western [Buck and the Preacher], which is his first assignment as a director. Poitier plays Buck as the latest word in self-reliant, soft-spoken, straight-shooting cowboys. At one point, while escaping a trap laid by his white nemeses, Buck even executes a running mount that would have made Yakima Canute proud. Yet I don't want to give the impression that Buck and his unscrupulous sidekick, the Preacher … are just Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes in black face. There is also an undertone in the film whispering benignly, "Up against the wall, M----- F----: this is a stickup!" The best-received scene in the film was the one where Buck and the Preacher robbed one of whitie's banks. (pp. 285-86)

[Buck and the Preacher is] more than just a Western. It has some fresh polemical intentions. It begins with a prologue informing us that black wagonmasters bravely tried to guide ex-slaves to homesteads in the West after the Civil War. The prologue briefs us on some of the extraordinary white discouragement and hardship faced by these wagonmasters. (Buck turns out to be a prototype of the breed.) At last the prologue dedicates the film to these men, "whose graves today lie as unmarked as their place in history." One purpose of this film, then, is to desegregate history. This strikes me as a feasible purpose for a work of popular art like a movie. (p. 286)

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr., in his review "Buck and the Preacher," in Commonweal (copyright © 1972 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XCVI, No. 12, May 26, 1972, pp. 285-86.

Gordon Gow

A change from familiar Western customs is afforded by [Buck and the Preacher, a] mildly comic and moderately dramatic account of the troubles that befell some of the freed slaves after the Civil War, when they headed for pastures new, but were impeded by white nightriders who wanted to keep them in the South to go on picking cotton for peanuts. It might not sound like a subject for laughter; and when it begins in beautifully moody sepia it looks as if it will be a solemn tale. But shortly after the colour has crept subtly into the frames, the fun begins as well….

Poitier has directed here for the first time, but with only a slight indication of freshness in Western style. He is much assisted, of course, by the unusual circumstances of the plot, as well as by the appropriately parched Mexican locations which give place at length to green and bounteous country. Some marvellously twangy music by Benny Carter lends a zip to numerous spates of action that might otherwise be routine. And it must be said that Poitier and Belafonte between them lift the comedy aspect into quite a tolerable caper, if perhaps a little obviously show-bizzy underneath the period realism. What I mean is best illustrated by a sequence where Belafonte surprises the nightriders in a brothel, and charms them as much as he shocks the 'madam' with his quasi-religious prattle about the sin of fornication: the preacher, in fact, is merely creating a diversion so that Buck can leap into action and make a surprise attack upon his enemies. In its way, this is breezy stuff and highly entertaining. And yet one feels that the racial connotations, so emphatic at times, ought not to be mixed with japes that are quite so calculated. Better than piling on the agony, of course; but I thought the balance uneasy.

Gordon Gow, in his review of "Buck and the Preacher" (© copyright Gordon Gow 1972; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 18, No. 9, June, 1972, p. 54.


Buck and the Preacher, a likeably unpretentious Western which marks the directorial debut of Sidney Poitier, gains much of its charm from the sly manipulation of genre conventions. It's about a taciturn ex-cavalryman and a shifty preacher leading a wagon train westward under repeated attack by a gang of bandits. Nothing much new here, except perhaps the mating of the Ford tradition (many echoes of Wagon Master) with modern anti-heroism. The real twist, though, is that the pioneers are black, the bandits are white trash, and the wagon train is rescued not by the cavalry but by the Indians.

Buck and the Preacher is saved from being a mere stunt like the black Hello, Dolly! by its creative use of the conventions it turns inside out. It mocks them at the same time it allows black audiences (and, vicariously, whites) the pleasure of usurping the mythology which the Western has long used to keep minorities in their place. Poitier's entrance scene is a thrill, both for its intrinsic beauty and for the echoes it carries: several blacks gazing into the distance, a solitary horseman appearing in the extreme background, and a fast panning shot of the horseman swiftly galloping and wheeling his steed in a circle, silhouetted in a blaze of sunlight. As Gordon Parks did in Shaft, Poitier is compensating for the black's traditionally impotent cinema image by playing macho heroism to the hilt—when Buck …...

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Judith Crist

A Warm December is a "black" film in that its protagonists … are black and that Poitier directed it. But it's essentially a non-racial and non-ethnic movie, with a bit of [William Wyler's] Roman Holiday and a dab of [Arthur Hiller's] Love Story to schmaltz up the highly literate Lawrence Roman script. It's the story of an American doctor on holiday in London, his encounter with a mystery girl, their romance and, with the solution of her mystery, their bittersweet parting.

It's a dashing, slick old-Hollywood romance—and the sort of movie that the popcorn-and-Kleenex crowd (count me in on rare occasions) can really wallow in….

Militants may scoff at schmaltz (our heroine does not die at film's end, I hasten to note) or at the love-vs.-duty or I-want-to-live issues. But this is exactly what Poitier had in mind, to my mind, some years ago when he said he made For Love of Ivy so that his children could identify with characters in a middle-class movie. The maid and the gambler in that one weren't quite middle-class to anybody's mind. But the value of A Warm December is that its protagonists are black, products of a slick fiction though they may be, and romantic heroes and heroines to identify with who aren't pushing dope or pimping, who aren't out to kill whitey and who make us empathize and care. Isn't that what screen entertainment entails? (p. 73)

Judith Crist, "The Old Fox and His New 'Jackal'" (reprinted by permission of the author), in New York Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 22, May 28, 1973, pp. 72-3.∗

Clyde Jeavons

Although apparently intent on saying something meaningful about emergent Africa, Sidney Poitier's second feature as director [A Warm December] turns out to be an amorphous transposition of Love Story, employing familiar push-button techniques to spring one's emotions. The dark continent is sentimentalised in the worst traditions of [Zoltan Korda's] Sanders of the River by the interpolation halfway through of an achingly pretty Swahili folksong, while the fictitious and unconvincing state of Torunda has closer ties with those speculative, wind-of-change television dramas of the Sixties … than with the turbulent political arena of Amin, Kaunda and Co. Saddled with an aimless script, Poitier is...

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Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

Sidney Poitier's new film, Uptown Saturday Night, is some less-structured, coherent kind of TV fare—a variety show, perhaps, a black Ed Sullivan Show or Dean Martin Comedy Hour. The plot has to do with an honest but poor man named Steve … who has stolen from him a lottery ticket which, a few days later, wins the million-dollar prize. Needless to say the fellow tries to get his ticket back, persisting in his search even when the ticket turns out to be in the possession of a bunch of gangsters.

Though this might sound like an action film, a thriller of some sort, it isn't. On the contrary, it's a series of character studies, cameos really, which are never anything more than vaguely connected...

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Vincent Canby

"Uptown Saturday Night" is essentially a put-on, but it's so full of good humor and, when the humor goes flat, of such high spirits that it reduces movie criticism to the status of a most nonessential craft.

The star as well as director of "Uptown Saturday Night" is Sidney Poitier, a man whose way with comedy is reminiscent of Stanley Kramer's in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." It's less instinctive than acquisitive. He himself can't make anyone laugh but he knows people who can. Mr. Poitier has had the good sense to hire a lot of exceptionally talented and funny people, including Richard Wesley, who wrote the screenplay for "Uptown Saturday Night."

The film combines blunt,...

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Maurice Peterson

[Uptown Saturday Night] has no pretense of relevance whatsoever. It doesn't have a drop of blood, no obscenity, nudity or any of the other ingredients usually considered essential for a successful Black-oriented movie. What it does have is frivolity. The only real concern of the Uptown folks—aside from having a good time—is a winning $50,000 lottery ticket that has been stolen by a greedy gang….

Uptown Saturday Night is Poitier's most ambitious directorial assignment to date. After a dazzling debut with Buck and the Preacher and the rather soggy A Warm December, he has undertaken a highly complex endeavor full of crowd scenes, intricate effects and delicately...

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Pauline Kael

Let's Do It Again is like a black child's version of [George Roy Hill's] The Sting—an innocent, cheerful farce about an Atlanta milkman … and a factory worker … who go to New Orleans and pull off a great scam. They outwit the black mobsters … and win enough money for their lodge back home, The Sons and Daughters of Shaka, to put up a new meeting hall. Nobody is hurt, and everybody who deserves a comeuppance gets it. Their con involves hypnotizing a spindly prizefighter…. (p. 66)

It's apparent why Sidney Poitier set this project in motion and directed it: he's making films for black audiences that aren't exploitation films. Let's Do It Again is a warm, throwaway...

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Jonathan Rosenbaum

Despite a frankly nonsensical plot full of formula antics and an unnecessarily protracted running time, Let's Do It Again is a healthy reminder of the relative verve, energy and talent to be found nowadays in the so-called 'black exploitation' film—a somewhat loaded term considering the fact that no one ever speaks of 'white exploitation', and particularly inappropriate in relation to such a high-spirited yet unassuming entertainment as this. Modestly directing himself as a straight man for much of the time, Sidney Poitier gives most of the show over to the ebullient Bill Cosby, and the latter takes every advantage of the opportunity…. Working with such a patently ludicrous intrigue, Poitier for the most...

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Tom Allen

Consider sit-com's ability to trivialize. After two decades of inexorable social enlightenment, the Brooklyn Sweathogs have substituted infantile pranks for the switchblade rock of [Richard Brooks's] The Blackboard Jungle, a classroom that has, incidentally, graduated at least three actor-directors in Paul Mazursky, Vic Morrow, and Sidney Poitier. The last, Poitier, seems particularly comfortable in the classroom. The Blackboard Jungle gave him a start; [James Clavell's] To Sir, With Love was a boost at mid-career; and now some of the strongest moments of his several directions appear in A Piece of the Action, in which he allows a younger generation, fresh faces in a ghetto class, their...

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John Coleman

Sidney Poitier probably shouldn't be accused so basely, but he does have a habit—since he turned actor-director—of making films that seem aimed at a black-white market and condescending to both shades. There is something for everyone in A Piece of the Action …: [the emphases rest] on jolly robbers, ghetto adolescents, even real problems. But the outcome of a largely black-staffed movie, with good intentions, does seem to turn on income: not what the film will make at the box-office but the way it chooses to deploy money in its inspissated plot. Poitier and the fine Bill Cosby are gentle villains who find themselves blackmailed into caring for a bunch of black dropouts at a community centre. While trying...

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Carrie Rickey

Bruce Jay Friedman's gear-shifting script and Sidney Poitier's lackluster pacing sink Stir Crazy. Whenever Friedman needs a joke, he takes castration fear out of his pocket: a New York cabbie clamps pliers on the balls of a recalcitrant fare in order to get paid; an inmate confides to Pryor in the prison hospital, "I came in here for a hernia operation, but instead they cut off my nut"; the warden trying to beat Wilder makes him ride an Urban Cowboy motorized bull to no avail—"Him being from the East," rationalizes the warden, "I thought he was a little soft in the crotch." Friedman's getting a little soft in the head if he continually has to go below the belt for a yuk. An abler director than Poitier...

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Richard Combs

Against all the odds, Sidney Poitier's last directorial venture, A Piece of the Action—a loose bundle of heist movie, sit-com and moral uplift—pulled itself through on sheer naivety and patent sincerity. Something of the same mix might be said to work for Stir Crazy, which displays an untoward delight in recoining comedy stereotypes. And the populist nerve that Poitier seemed to be playing towards in A Piece of the Action has been resoundingly hit—in box-office terms anyway—in Stir Crazy…. It begins none too promisingly, with a lame reversal of the out-of-towner joke as two Manhattanites, playwright Gene Wilder and actor Richard Pryor, decide to quit the city (despite a credit...

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David Ansen

If [Arthur Hiller's] "Silver Streak" was a brazen knockoff of [Alfred] Hitchcock, ["Hanky Panky"] is a knockoff of a knockoff, with [Gene] Wilder playing a "wrong man" who stumbles into a nasty struggle over a top-secret government tape. As [Richard] Widmark's thugs pursue him from one end and the frazzled Feds close in from the other, Wilder gets plenty of opportunity to exhibit the hapless hysteria that is his all-too-familiar trademark. Wilder needs a new shtik; [Gilda] Radner needs any shtik at all. As the sidekick/love interest, she is saddled with a mirthless role that requires of her the one thing not in her repertoire—sex appeal. Sidney Poitier directs this endless chase with a certain impersonal slickness...

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Richard Combs

For a while, in A Piece of the Action, director Sidney Poitier seemed about to become Frank Capra reborn in the unlikely venue of bland, middle-of-the-road, caper-cum-comedy vehicles. But that film's agreeable mixture of improving sentiments and loose performance comedy now seems to have got lost in the stampede to repeat the box-office bonanza of Stir Crazy…. But Hanky Panky has not only forsaken the casualness that was so infectious about both those films, it doesn't even have a comedy pairing to carry its aggressive concoction of bad jokes, mistimed jokes and just plain non-jokes….

Some American reviews have suggested that this is a belly-laugh variation on [Alfred...

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