The first of three films in which Sidney Poitier starred in 1967, To Sir, With Love is a modest, workaday film that quickly withdrew before the trumpeted ambitions of In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It’s not a forgotten film, necessarily, but it’s less important to Poitier’s career than the other two. In any case, To Sir, With Love caught my notice because as an example of the “inspirational teacher” genre, it’s one of my mom’s favorites. We watched it together, broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, in the summer of 2009. My recollection of why I gave the movie 3 ½ stars is faint at this point. There may have been some compromise between my actual appraisal, nascent as it would have been at that time, and the semi-vicarious nature of my viewing experience. That is to say, I wanted to agree with my mom that this is a good movie. So, eight years later, I found myself able to start fresh with the film and give it a more thorough examination.
To Sir, With Love is the kind of film that could almost be a recruitment video for potential teachers. The formula has been mined numerous times over the years: new teacher takes over a class of seemingly incorrigible outcasts, butts heads for a time, gradually wins their trust, and finally becomes a cherished leader. The students, of course, move on, and for the teacher, graduation brings the blues. But then comes the next year’s class and the promise that this satisfying arc can be repeated year after year. And naturally the teacher will be enticed by this promise even if he had initially thought of teaching as a temporary job. The other movie I’ve seen that most closely follows this formula is Dangerous Minds. Made in the 90s, that movie had the freedom to make the kids rougher, more prone to violence and foul language, whereas the old British slang in To Sir, With Love — “bleedin'” and “guv’nor” and such — is entirely quaint today. Having accounted for those limitations, however, I find that the older film fares better.
Race is an issue that quietly rumbles underneath To Sir, With Love but never becomes a foregrounded issue like in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or In the Heat of the Night. Poitier is an actor whose intensity is at its fiercest when his demeanor is at its calmest. His character, Mark Thackeray, overcomes various ignorant gibes (from angry students and a wet-blanket fellow teacher alike) simply by projecting unassailable dignity and rectitude. Notably, on the two occasions when Thackeray, in his own words, loses his temper, he only cements the respect of the students further, as they see how much righteous fury he is able to control. All the things that make him an outsider (a black man who’s spent most of his life in California suddenly teaching a predominantly white class in London’s East End) eventually get shrugged off due to the fact that he’s actually the perfect man for this sensitive job. Many of the underprivileged students come from abusive homes, so the challenge is to nurture them rather than breaking them further. Thackeray happens upon the insight that, more than book knowledge, what the students need is guidance and preparation for entering the adult world.
The scene in which he sets up this new syllabus is the best in the film. At the start, the class had clearly been remedial in nature: from day to day, Thackeray might be teaching reading, arithmetic or geography, in the hopes that any of it will stick. When none of it does, he dramatically tosses all the books into the trash and launches into a monologue while pacing up and down the aisles between desks. For much of the scene, the camera is placed in a corner of the room, panning along with Poitier’s movements, matching the viewer’s unblinking gaze. The actor is great in this scene, credibly taking an approach that catches the students’ attention, a combination of immovable strength and evident respect for them. There’s more work to be done — one bad boy in particular is still not impressed, and ironically enough this scene lays the groundwork for a female student to develop a crush on Thackeray — but everything starts to improve with this scene. Everything, that is, except for the curriculum, which remains haphazard. One day brings a field trip to a museum (a scene captured as a montage of still photographs), while another sees Thackeray teaching the kids how to make a salad for some reason. There are other teachers at this school, but their contributions, it would seem, are dubious at best. It’s all up to him.
Poitier is the only truly compelling element in this film. The whole thing is told from his point of view, and the transformations of the students are altogether soft-pedaled. In fact, during the last scene, another teacher congratulates Thackeray on the change he’s wrought in the students, while they dance to a mop-top rock band, which is pretty much exactly what they’re doing at the beginning of the movie, too. The elements of youth culture in the film serve little purpose beyond providing an entry point for the pop star Lulu to play a supporting role and sing the title song. Still, there’s undeniable satisfaction in seeing order brought out of chaos, however mild that chaos may have actually been. And the subplot of the student with a crush on Thackeray is maturely underplayed. In all, I’m still lukewarm on the film, but I’m more comfortable than I was eight years ago with knocking it down to three stars. The pleasures to be had with this kind of film are starting to feel rote to me.
(A closing note: this is my nineteenth entry in this blog series, and as of this writing there are a total of 749 movies to which I’ve awarded 3 ½ stars. So I could easily keep this up for many years to come, but I don’t think I will. Why is it that I’ve given three or 3 ½ stars to more than 50% of all the movies I’ve seen? There are a couple reasons, both of them entirely forgivable, however much my perfectionist tendencies might wish it were not so. For one thing, I’m still just watching movies as a hobby, so of course I’m mostly limiting myself to movies that are well-respected or popular. For all the ground I’ve covered in the last few years, I still haven’t attempted too many deep dives [my trip back to 1987 next month will be one]. So, in other words, I’ll usually find things to admire in the movies I choose to see. That’s a good thing! The other reason is a matter of simple insecurity. I could give lower ratings to quite a few of the movies to which I’ve given a listless thumbs-up, but I still don’t have quite enough confidence in my taste to do that regularly. The challenge of writing professionally about this stuff is to find something more interesting to say than, “This was the fourth movie I saw this week. It was also fine.” Additionally, though my ratings are an honest reflection of how I feel about each movie, I’ve also been known to steal a glance at the ratings given by my favorite critics, feeling buttressed when they’re close to my own score. So, whaddaya know? If I choose a rating right there in the middle, then I’m close to everyone. Hmmm. Anyway, long story short, next year I’m going to start gearing up for my big end-of-the-decade list. So I’ll continue writing posts in this series every couple months, but they will be devoted to movies from the current decade, and then, when that’s over, I’ll probably put the thing to bed. If you’ve read this far, thank you so much; you’re a saint.)