There are movies that are destined to become great classics, ones that you can watch endlessly and still find great pleasure in viewing. There are other films that raise the bar in computer generated imagery (CGI) and transport you like an innocent bystander to another world. And then there are those simple yet pivotal movies without a galaxy of stars or CGI special effects that captivate, engage and leave you with a wistfulness that lingers long after the movie’s credits finish rolling.
“To Sir, with Love” is one such film that can connect multi-generations, cut through racial boundaries and open a dialogue about memories of high school, life-changing moments, and perhaps even transform how we all regard and judge others a bit too hastily.
Based on the semi-autobiographical book by E. R. Braithwaite, “To Sir, with Love” deals with the social and racial issues of an inner city school in the East End of London. It quietly postures this against the backdrop of injustice when college educated men were denied white collar work because of the color of their skin.
Sidney Poitier portrays E. R. Braithwaite’s character who is renamed Mark Thackeray in the film. The movie opens as Thackeray begins his lowly teaching position in the tough, inner city school comprised of the juvenile dregs of London. Thackeray willingly takes this inferior job after 18 months of being denied work in his field of engineering solely because of his race.
Contrast the movie storyline with Poitier’s rising star in Hollywood and the civil rights timeline. Of Bahamian-American-African descent, Poitier was at the peak of his career being the first man of color to win an Oscar in 1963 (for “Lillies of the Field”) and parlaying that with a hat trick of films debuting in 1967. In the same year as “To Sir, with Love” he also starred in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night.”
“To Sir, with Love” was released on June 14, 1967. This was just ten months before Martin Luther King was killed as he stood on the balcony outside his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. The week after King was assassinated President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
The magnitude of that time, with the racial and social issues that dominated, weaves through the fabric of the movie while subtly drawing the viewer to reminisce about the awkwardness of high school. The audience can relate viscerally to the emotions of the students as they flaunt their cynicism as if to mark their entry into adulthood.
Initially the students over power Thackeray’s control of the classroom by sheer numbers. But as the story progresses the veneer of each student is peeled off to expose them less as a group and more as individuals.
The notable students in the story include class tough guy, Bert Denham (played by Christian Roberts), flirtatious Pamela Dare (Judy Geeson), and Barbara “Babs” Pegg (played by the actress-singer Lulu). Denham is the surly, brash student who commandeers the class with his unruliness and it becomes a battle of wills as Thackeray tries to establish order and respect. Gillian Blanchard (Suzy Kendall) plays a supportive colleague and hints of a growing affection for Thackeray, which for the times was quite scandalous.
The students continue to test the boundaries with mean-spirited antics designed to embarrass Thackeray which leads to more callous behavior. Thackeray tries to maintain his composure even in the heat of the moment which slowly begins to earn him a bit of respect.
Still the students persist with a series of intolerable events which finally lead Thackeray to lose his composure. This pivotal moment makes him realize how his collective approach in treating them like children has been his single gravest error. He changes his strategy and begins treating them like the adults they will soon become once they walk out of his classroom and permanently into the real world. This marks the turning point not only for the students but for Thackeray. With his elegant dignity, Thackeray’s patience and determination start transforming angst-filled teens into young, respectful adults.
By today’s standards, the film comes across as naïve and mild compared to East Los Angeles in “Stand and Deliver” or East Palo Alto in “Dangerous Minds,” two other teacher-student dramatizations filmed over 20 years later. Nevertheless, the movie stands the test of time in delivering a poignant story about the coming of age, racial tension and the transformative ability of a singular dedicated soul who triumphs against all the odds. Like the movie, the title song, “To Sir, with Love,” will continue resounding in your mind long after the final credits finish rolling.