In the 1950s Blackboard Jungle was one of the early pivotal roles for Sidney Poitier where he plays a disaffected youth who is ultimately mentored and encouraged by his teacher: Glenn Ford. Thus, it seems fitting, at the height of his own powers in 1967, Poitier left the student behind and graduated with To Sir With Love leaving an indelible mark on a new generation.
By now it feels like a rather tame vestige of Swinging London. In this world, Poitier feels like a cultural anachronism. Yes, he’s black but there’s also a difference in class. Because he has a level of propriety that feels immediately at odds with the British working-class milieu that goes with grungy streetcorners and gossip on the double-decker in London’s East End.
However, director James Clavell envisions a story where Sidney Poitier fits seamlessly into a British world because he was himself a seasoned man of the world having grown up in Australia, gone to war in Asia, and made a career for himself in Hollywood. It does feel like a unique bit of casting for the time, but it also suggests Clavell’s confidence and understanding of his star’s capabilities.
It’s true Mark Thackeray comes to the school with a background in engineering and a world of experience, but he also has ideals and as he figures out his life, he wants to do something meaningful. His new class has a far different context — hard lives — where teachers are observed more like enemies than mentors. They distrust authority and look destined to revolt against yet another victim, first, sawing off a leg of his desk, attempting to drop projectiles on him, and generally undermining his authority by any means possible.
The score gets weirdly antsy, and it doesn’t do Poitier’s performance any favors when he fully blows his top, if not out of vitriolic rage then certainly righteous indignation. Still, he carries this turning point with aplomb, embodying everything I want to be but can rarely muster with a steely resolve.
Following in the footsteps of Ford, he’s strong. He has a backbone. But he also has a caring spirit, and he’s willing to help these kids when no one else will. He speaks to them not as cloying little children but as adults who are capable of rational thoughts and feelings. They employ a certain level of decorum and yet in response no subjects are considered off-limits.
The museum montage is a bit disruptive, but it feels like a relic of the ’60s overlayed by Lulu’s chart-topping theme. In truth, it was a product of necessity with the needed permits falling through. Still, it’s a sign of something greater. There is a trust that forms between a teacher and his pupils even as their horizons are broadened to things they would have never given a thought to before.
If the movie is about one teacher’s task of not simply subduing a classroom but winning their respect and admiration, then, there several specific test cases that prove prudent to consider.
The most precocious and romantic member of the class, Pamela Dare (Judy Geeson), begins to form a crush on Mark, and he does his best to cultivate her talents while at the same time encouraging her to reconnect with her mother.
Then, there’s Denham (Christian Roberts). He has the bad boy scruffiness of a wannabe Keith Richards or Jagger, and his redemption is another one of Thackeray’s ongoing projects. There’s a standoff with the P.E. Teacher where Sir teaches them a lesson about the unfairness of the world only to suffer for it. Then, of course, we’re reminded of lingering racism in all walks of life. This prevailing sentiment is no different here than across the pond.
One key to Thackeray’s success (apart from being Sidney Poitier) is because he actually shares their world and still rose out of it. Not a great deal of focus is given to it. Still, it’s hard not to see how Thackeray’s background mimics Poitier’s own, originating from humble means to become such a prominent and successful figure with extraordinary elocutionary powers. He’s able to command that classroom (and the screen) with the sound of his voice and the reason that lies behind it. He’s wasn’t born with all these abilities, but he certainly polished them.
I’ll be the first to avow, To Sir, With Love is not exactly auteur cinema, but it goes to show the weight a performance can have. I appreciate what the picture stands for and the way Poitier delivers it provides a genuine weightiness. He instills lessons about apologizing when you know somehow else is in the wrong and extending forgiveness to those who don’t deserve it. In a boxing match he exerts dominance quietly and not as an aggressor. Maybe elements of the movie feel antiquated, but I dearly hope that these do not.
In terms of his performance, the way he carries a briefcase or drops a letter into the red mailbox with a slight affectionate tap, you can’t sum them up, and they don’t mean anything by themselves and still, these are the hallmarks of his performance. And of course, there’s that dance. Somehow this is Poitier personified: he’s imbued with such dignity, and we receive that, but he’s also a man measured by joy as much as rage. Tenderness as much as ferocity.
The final “Lady’s Choice” dance where he takes up his spot on the floor opposite Pamela is one of the film’s sweetest culminations. And when the more traditional trappings evaporate into a raucous number by The Mindbenders, he’s more than game to groove along with it. In fact, he seems to relish the moment just as we do. It’s the film’s crowning gift of mutual affection and respect. I couldn’t help thinking that the life that each one of those teens offers up will be a testament to Sir. Because his investment reaped so much reward.
Yes, To Sir, With Love follows the expected trajectory and still it becomes more about the riches along the way expressed through minor victories and then incremental interactions leading to steady levels of understanding and growth. Do schools actually change like this? Do teachers actually make a difference? Can class rebels be reformed just like so? And does a man likely give up on ambitions for the greater good? I don’t know if I can answer these succinctly (or if I want to answer them), but perhaps that isn’t the point.
To Sir, With Love is an exhortation to never stop trying to be that difference. Is it futile? The world would have us believe it’s so. Am I cynical? Most certainly. I felt a particular kindred spirit to Mr. Weston. And yet movies come along and remind us we should have a go at a heartless world anyway.
Bar that opening scene and a jaunt to the market or a quick moment ironing clothes, we rarely see Poitier outside the four walls of that school. It’s as if he exists to be there as a beacon and a guide for those students. I wanted him and Suzy Kendall to really get together. There’s the semblance of romance and only a warm hint.
But again, I fall back on Poitier’s powerhouse performance, which makes us dream of something better. He bears all our hopes and cares, standing in for any teacher we ever had or wished we had.
I resonated with the movie anew because I spent some time in another country working at a school where many of the students might be classified as “rejects,” and yet on my best days, I felt such a connection to them. I wanted dearly for them to succeed, and Sidney Poitier as he is incarnated up on that screen is a far greater man than I. I can only imagine how he felt.