• U.S.

Cinema: Class War

2 minute read

To Sir, with Love is a British expedition into the blackboard jungle—territory sometimes assumed to be exclusively American. The plot is primer-simple. A refugee engineer (Sidney Poitier) from British Guiana’s black, bored jungle takes an interim teaching job in a London slum school to tide him over until he can find an opening in his field. He meets with little race prejudice; the students hate him—less for the color of his skin than for the shade of his opinions. Stiff-necked, prim, always dressed in a starched white shirt, he tries to turn the kids into adults overnight by lecturing them on deportment and making them read books they cannot hope to understand. Like other teachers in the school, he gets nowhere.

Then one day the class rides him once too often. He cracks under the strain, rages at the boys, warns the loose-lipped girls, “Nobody likes a slut for long.” He throws away the books, begins discussing such forbidden subjects as sex and rebellion. The shock treatment works. The class regards him with a mixture of awe and fear, begins to call him “Sir.” One of the girls (Judy Geeson) falls in love with him, and one of the boys challenges him to a boxing match. The boy loses, gaining Poitier the final measure of respect. By the time that Poitier receives a job offer from a Midlands factory, the once hostile class has become a bunch of friendly natives who present him with a pewter mug—to “Sir,” with love. In grateful tears, Poitier rips up the letter from the factory and prepares for a lifetime of turning hippies and chippies into grownups.

To Sir, with Love attempts to blend realism and idealism, an unstable mixture. Some scenes, for example a museum visit shown in still pictures, are as static as a photograph album. Still, even the weak moments are saved by Poitier, who invests his role with a subtle warmth. In the end, he makes his point: the world can use more Sirs.

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