Nov. 30, 2011
To Sir, with Love (1967)
Grade: 66/100

Director: James Clavell
Stars: Sidney Poitier

What it's about. Sidney Poitier is an ambitious young immigrant to England from British Guiana. He has an engineering degree but can't land a job, so he takes a position as a high school teacher in a lower middle class neighborhood. Attractive Suzy Kendall is a friendly fellow young teacher. Notable among the students are tough Christian Roberts, charismatic free-spirit Judy Geeson, and talented pop singer Lulu, whose catchy ballad theme is played multiple times. British invasion rock group The Mindbenders play at the graduation dance.

Poitier's class is rebellious, which frustrates Poitier. Finally, he rejects the textbooks and tries to teach them life lessons. Because it is a movie, all the students come around, even Roberts, although Poitier has to thump him in the belly to accomplish this. Poitier must also fend off passes from persistent hottie Geeson. And Lulu sings the theme song. Again.

Finally, Poitier receives the long-awaited engineering job offer. Does he take it, or remain at his public service teaching post? What do you think?

How others will see it. Columbia studios waited a year to release the movie, which turned out to be a major hit in ever-Anglophile America. Poitier got most of the credit, but the film has other things going for it, especially future bestseller author James Clavell as writer and director. Lulu and the Mindbenders were also auspicious choices.

Despite its box office prowess, the film was considered a minor low budget effort and ignored by both the Oscars and BAFTA. Today, though, it is fairly well known, partly due to Poitier, and partly due to Lulu's theme song, which topped the Hot 100 in 1967 and has seen frequent play on oldies stations ever since. At, the user ratings are quite high, especially among women over 45, who may take a fancy to Perfect Man Poitier.

How I felt about it. Poitier's gift at turning rambunctious youth into sappy teenagers is perhaps overdone. Insolence bred by a disturbing family life and a lack of future opportunity is not going to vanish because your teacher is a cool black dude who wants you to address him as Sir.

There is also a lack of overt racism that would likely be more blatant in a poor white neighborhood. Poitier's status as a black immigrant is referred to now and then, and he does have a university degree. He is obviously well-spoken. But similar things can be said for President Obama, and he is the subject of multitudinous racial insults on anonymous internet message boards. The seeming perfection of Poitier may actually increase racist rancor, since he threatens perceived notions of how blacks behave.

Certainly, the producers of the film were shrewd to skirt such matters in favor of an ultimately upbeat, feel-good movie. But while that is the way we would like things to work out, it doesn't usually work out that way in life. Students can fail no matter how caring their teacher is, and there will always be students that can't be reached by a specific teacher.

That caution aside, my only other frustration with To Sir, with Love are his sexist and prudish class sermons. He emphatically states, "No man likes a slut for long!" But there are certainly many who would like one off and on, and a pretty girl will always be in demand regardless of her local reputation, which she can leave behind at any time. Her looks go with her. The real message is that proper society does not like a "slut." Yet Katy Perry and Britney Spears have made mountains of money banking on such a style. The world is not how Miss Manners pretends it to be.