To Sir, with Love (1967)
September 20, 2019 | by Shannon
What an incredible film To Sir, with Love (1967) is! I laughed, I cried, I got frustrated when things didn’t go well for the characters, and I became elated whenever things worked out. If you like uplifting films about inspirational teachers who completely change the lives of their students, then To Sir, with Love is the film for you! No wonder it was the highest grossing film of Sidney Poitier’s career! It’s superb.
If you missed To Sir, with Love on Turner Classic Movies this week, you can rent or purchase the film on Amazon here. Let’s get to the plot!
The film is set in London! (And the opening credits are so adorable and soooo 1960s! LOVE it.) Sidney plays Mark Thackeray, an engineer who can’t seem to get the engineering job he so desperately seeks. He decides to become a teacher until an engineering position comes through. The school that hires him is in a poor, East London neighborhood. The students there are disadvantaged, unmotivated, have been rejected from other schools, and many of the kids have already had run-ins with the law.
Sounds a bit like Blackboard Jungle (1955), doesn’t it? Only this time around, 12 years after playing a rebellious student in Blackboard Jungle, Sidney is now the teacher trying to inspire his jaded students! Talk about coming full circle.
Mark’s new students are all upper-classmen, just trying to get through their last year of required schooling before going out into the real world to look for jobs. And their terrible attitudes and antics in the classroom have already led several teachers to resign.
Mark tries his best to engage his students despite their behavior. It takes a lot to get Mark to lose his temper, but when the girls in his class burn a sanitary napkin over the heater, it’s the final straw, and Mark officially loses it. He doesn’t mince words, and the students are scared into listening to him! FINALLY.
A Change of Curriculum
Mark uses his students’ momentary fear to veer from the traditional school curriculum, and tells his class that from now on, they will learn in his classroom in an adult fashion so he can prepare them for the real world they will soon enter. Mark encourages his students to ask questions about anything they want. He also makes a new rule that the students will address him and each other with respect, using “Sir” and “Miss,” instead of the nicknames and disrespectful slurs they’ve been using.
Mark sees almost immediate results from these changes, and when his students express interest in going to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the exhibits Mark speaks admiringly of, he sets about to make it happen. Pretty cool teacher, right??!!!
A Complete Transformation
When the day of the museum trip arrives, there truly has been a complete transformation in Mark’s students. They come to school well dressed and groomed, ready and excited for their field trip.
This scene made me so emotional! No one has given these kids a chance with their education, and here “Sir,” as the students now affectionately call Mark, comes along, showing them how exciting the world of education and learning can be.
Sir talks to his students about love and marriage. He encourages them to disregard mean gossip, treat everyone as equals, not judge by skin color, and to work hard. Sir tells his students:
“The point is if you’re prepared to work hard you can do almost anything. You can get any job you want.”
What an important message these kids have never been encouraged to believe. Sir inspires his students to dream and set goals for a brighter future as graduation draws near.
It’s not all a bed of roses—Sir momentarily loses favor with the class when one of his students attempts to use violence to solve a problem with another teacher. Afterwards, Sir tells all his students:
“You’re missing the point, you all are. In a few weeks you will be going out into the world. Are you going to use a weapon every time someone makes you angry? You’re supposed to be learning self-discipline here…are you a man or a hoodlum?”
But by the end of the school year, Sir has unquestionably earned the love and respect of all his students. He has successfully inspired them to work hard at their educations, careers, and futures. He’s enlightened his class to be open-minded, and to avoid racial prejudices. He’s effectively called his students to their
“duty to change the world, if you can. Not by violence, peacefully. Individually, not as a mob.”
Also at the end of the school year, Sir finally receives the engineering job offer he’s been waiting for. But he realizes that his gifts are better used teaching and inspiring young lives. Sir stays on at the school and (presumably) continues to influence new students to work hard, dream big, and accomplish great things.
Much like Lilies of the Field (1963), To Sir, with Love was based on a book, and Sidney was immediately drawn to the role of Mark Thackeray. Also like Lilies of the Field, no studio wanted to make To Sir, with Love into a film! They worried American audiences would not be interested in a movie about English teens. Furthermore, Sidney himself said that most Hollywood producers viewed the storyline as
“Too soft, too sweet, too sentimental, and most of all too special.”
Eventually, Columbia bought the film rights, but the studio still wasn’t going to give To Sir a proper budget—a mere $750,000 was allotted to the production. And, once again like Lilies of the Field, Sidney agreed to a risky pay cut: no salary no nothing, just 10 percent of the gross. A fantastic arrangement if To Sir, with Love made money, but a complete wash for his bank account if it didn’t.
A Character after his Own Heart
Of course, Sidney had learned from his experience filming Lilies of the Field that taking personal and financial risks to get a film made could lead to incredible results: remember all the money he made and, oh yeah, THE OSCAR he won after taking a chance on Lilies of the Field? But it was more than the prospect of incredible rewards that made Sidney willing to gamble on To Sir, with Love.
Mark Thackeray is a character who rose from nothing, and accomplished great things. We learn in the film that growing up, Mark
“was very poor. And there was something within me that wanted an education. And so I put all of my energies into that.”
In pursuit of this education, Mark took on jobs washing dishes, among other menial labor positions. This shocks his students because, as one boy in his class says,
“You washed dishes, Sir? But you talk posh and all!”
To which Mark responds,
“Yes, well that wasn’t easy.”
UMMMMMMMM who does that all sound like?!!! This is literally a page straight out of Sidney’s own life! Don’t forget that Sidney grew up impoverished in the Bahamas, spent a few years homeless in New York City as he tried to make ends meet washing dishes, and rid himself of a thick Bahamian accent so he could find work as an actor.
Sidney must have seen the uncanny parallels between his own life and his character in To Sir, with Love. Surely this greatly contributed to his investment in the production, and his mastery of the role.
Top of the Heap
WhenTo Sir, with Love was released in the summer of 1967, it was another surprise Poitier hit! To Sir became Sidney’s highest grossing film ever, earning $7.2 million dollars by the end of 1967!
Sidney had three smash films in 1967: the murder/crime drama In the Heat of the Night, the classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner about interracial marriage, and of course, To Sir, with Love. All three movies were so successful that Columbia initiated a Gallup poll to see why these films beat the pants off of just about every other movie released that year. Well, DUH, the answer was Sidney!
The results of the poll showed that Sidney was one of a handful of stars whose name alone could make a film successful. I might add that he was also the only African American name in the bunch. In a troubled time of violence and race riots, Sidney Poitier, the first African American movie star, was also the most popular movie star in America. WOW, GO SIDNEY!
Criticism of the Poitier Image
Unfortunately, when you’re at the very, very top, the only place to go is down. In the late 1960s, times were changing, and unfortunately the image that Sidney represented on screen—the educated, upstanding, well-dressed, nonviolent promoter of integration and equality—fell out of favor with the public. Many in Hollywood and American society had shifted to more violent and rebellious methods to achieve racial equality. In this period of The Black Panthers and “Blaxploitation” films, Sidney, who had done so much to break down racial barriers with his uplifting films of mass appeal, came under intense criticism for his more Martin Luther King-inspired, non-violent screen image and beliefs.
I must say, it angers me to no end what some of his critics wrote and said about Sidney at this time. This post is already super long so I won’t start quoting any of these detractors here, but I think Sidney himself sums up the criticism and my feelings on this time in his career perfectly:
“In essence, I was being taken to task for playing exemplary human beings.”
Sidney was all about making movies that entertained, made people happy, and positively influenced the world, and he was not about to change his ideals to fit in with what he predicted would be a short lived movement. He stuck to his guns, and waited it out.
Don’t worry, things did turn around, and this period of “Sidney bashing” thankfully came to an end by the mid 1970s. Eventually, his critics and Hollywood came to their senses, and realized that Sidney had been right all along, that what he had done for African Americans and the struggle for equality was AMAZING, something to be recognized and applauded.
1967: Still a Good Year for Sidney
Despite the beginning of this unwarranted criticism of his career and screen image, I want to underscore that 1967 was still a watershed year for Sidney. In addition to having three hit films, Sidney also broke two other barriers that year: he became the first African American to imprint his hand and footprints in the cement at Graumen’s Chinese Theater, and he became the first African American to form a major production company, E&R Productions. (The initials of his parents’ names, Evelyn and Reginald. What a sweet son!!!)
Check Back Next Week!
Well, there you have it! My thoughts on To Sir, with Love, and some (I think!) fascinating history of that time in Sidney’s career. The more I find out about this amazing man, the more in awe of him I am.
Have you seen To Sir, with Love? What do you think about this feel-good film?
And don’t forget to check the TCM film schedule for next week’s marathon of Sidney films. It’s our last week featuring Sidney! Can you believe it? I have so enjoyed learning more about him and watching his films, I wish we had more time with Sidney as Star of the Month!