When I first watched the movie To Sir with Love, I had little idea about racism or that Sidney Poitier, who played the lead character, was a trailblazer for black actors.
As a student, and as a teenager in the late sixties, the movie resonated with me, although the guys in my school were in no way as delinquent as those portrayed in the movie.
Certainly, the classroom where Mark Thackeray (Poitier) taught was alien to me. I remembered watching the movie, which was released in 1967, with some friends.
The somewhat sentimental movie, directed by James Clavell, had an impact on us, and I remember tears welling up in my eyes at one or two scenes, especially at the end when the reformed students show appreciation for the teacher.
It was only later that I learned that the movie was based on an autobiographical novel by ER Braithwaite. And it would be years before I would discover how significant Poitier’s role in To Sir with Love and several other movies had been to the black community in the United States, or who Braithwaite was.
At that time, all that mattered was that it was an enjoyable movie which showed how a tenacious teacher could influence his students to become more responsible and confident and, in the process, learn patience and compassion.
I believe it not only helped many students have a better appreciation of their teachers but also caused teachers to pause and reflect on the importance of their own role and their methods of teaching.
I remember having an excited discussion about the movie with my friends, in particular how much fun we could have if our school were to be like that depicted in the movie. I am sure the book To Sir with Love would elicit much discussion and open up the minds of students if it were to be made part of the reading requirement at secondary level in our schools.
Talking about his London teaching experience, Braithwaite said in 2013: “I don’t know if I changed any lives or not, but something did happen between them and me, which was quite gratifying.” He said he had not kept in contact with the students depicted in To Sir with Love.
I have watched the movie, a Teacher’s Day favourite, twice or thrice. I’ll watch it again if any of the TV channels were to screen it in the coming days or weeks.
Although I’ve watched a few of Poitier’s movies, I remember To Sir with Love best. I don’t remember watching Lilies of the Field for which he won the Best Actor Oscar – the first black to do so. I do, however, remember enjoying In the Heat of the Night.
Being black, Poitier had a tough time breaking into Hollywood but when he did, he proved to be a class act. He is one of those exemplary characters who deserve admiration for rising from nowhere to somewhere and trying to be a torch for their people.
Denzel Washington, who won the Best Actor Oscar in 2002 – the second black to do so, and that too after almost four decades – said in his Oscar acceptance speech: “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.”
Before getting into the movies, the almost illiterate Poitier was a stage actor. And before that he was washing dishes in a restaurant.
His rise as a talented actor and his Best Actor Oscar in 1964 helped inspire blacks to strive harder, and to join the fight for civil rights. Poitier himself supported the civil rights movement, especially with funds.
In fact, it was in 1964 that the Civil Rights Act was ratified. The Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin, and also discrimination on the basis of sex and race in hiring, promoting, and firing. It also prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and federally funded programmes and strengthened the enforcement of voting rights and the desegregation of schools.
In 1974, Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
He turned to directing in the 1980s, and some may still remember the comedy Stir Crazy directed by him and starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
Poitier, who enjoyed dual citizenship – both from the US and Bahamas – was the ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan from 1997 to 2007. His death on Jan 7, 2022 was announced by the Foreign Affairs Minister of Bahamas, Fred Mitchell.
Poitier was 94.
Braithwaite, the man who wrote the best-selling To Sir with Love, lived longer. He died in 2016 aged 104. The lives of Poitier and Braithwaite were worlds apart, except for the racism they encountered from whites.
While Poitier was born into an economically poor family, Braithwaite was born in Guyana in 1912 to parents who were educated at Oxford University. Money was not a problem as his father was a diamond miner. After attending the elite Queen’s College in British Guiana, as his country was then known, he studied at City College in New York. After a stint as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, he did his master of physics at Cambridge University.
For 18 months he went in search of work as an engineer but found racism blocking his path.
Braithwaite wrote: “I had just been brought face to face with something I had either forgotten or completely ignored for more than six exciting years – my black skin.” The six years referred to was the time he spent with the RAF, where, he said, there was no racial discrimination.
Left with no alternative, he signed on to become a teacher at St George-in-the-East school in the slum area of London’s East End where he had to handle unruly students. He transferred that experience onto his 1959 book To Sir with Love.
After its publication, he left teaching to become a social worker but continued to write fiction and non-fiction books. In 1962, he was appointed an education consultant to Unesco in Paris. Just like Poitier, he too became an ambassador.
Between 1967 and 1969 Braithwaite was Guyana’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. Later he became Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela. He then shifted to academia, working at several universities such as New York University and Florida State University before ending his career as a visiting professor at Manchester Community College in England from 2005 to 2006.
As I look at the lives of these two men, I can’t help thinking that whether you are a dishwasher or a Cambridge graduate, your colour matters. Daily we are reminded that racism lives on – whether in the US or Malaysia.
But the lives of Poitier and Braithwaite also remind us that such struggles only serve to make victims of racism stronger and that those suffering under racist policies must inculcate within them the will and strength to rise above the racists.
Books and movies such as To Sir with Love play a crucial role in bringing racism to our attention and forcing us to, at least for a while, recognise our own racist tendencies or reflect on institutionalised racism or the racist tendencies of others.
Books and movies such as To Sir with Love also help us reflect on our school system and our attitudes as students or teachers.
Thank you, Braithwaite, for the book. Thank you for the movies and farewell Sir Sidney Poitier. – Excerpted from fmt.com