Tuesday, 15 January 2013

To Sir with Love

To Sir with Love


To Sir with Love was one of the films we covered when we celebrated Black History Month last year.  All the music we played on that show was by Black British artists.  The show didn’t get off to the best start as we opened with Estelle’s ‘American Boy’, failing to realise there was an “f” word in it (we should have played the Radio Edit) and had to apologise to our listeners.

In To Sir with Love, Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, an Engineering graduate from British Guiana who takes a job as a teacher in a tough East End secondary school. 

After initially struggling with his unruly pupils Thackeray decides to adopt a new strategy, one that meets with the disapproval of his fellow teachers; that of treating his students like adults in order to prepare them for the adult world. The film has a repeated motif of scenes beginning with an opening door, signifying the new opportunities of the changing times.  The conflict between the newer and established members of staff highlights the altering attitudes of the day and the script does not limit itself to issues of race but also deals with teenage angst, leadership, trust, respect, single parenting, class and independence.  The cinematography is unchallenging, the colour palette safe and nostalgic and the cosiness of the classroom juxtaposes with the challenging of taboos.  The film ends with a blossoming inter-racial romance and there’s even a (glimpsed rather than seen) sanitary towel.  As a teenager in the 80s, the age of the ‘video nasty’, the appearance of this item alone caused my school mates to talk in whispers about the latest ‘must-see’; Brian De Palma’s Carrie’,  ten years later.

The film is loosely based on the (semi-autobiographical) novel by black Guyanese writer E R Braithwaite.  Braithwaite’s writing dealt with racial discrimination and his books were banned in South Africa until 1973 when Braithwaite was granted a visa and the questionable status of “Honorary White”. The South African Publication Control Board also banned the film on the grounds that it was “offensive”.

Poitier was often criticised for playing characters who were over idealised or (in the case of Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) “too white”.  Poitier himself expressed regrets that his desire to play more varied roles often conflicted with his belief he should set a good example.  Thackeray is portrayed as a flawed character which makes it one of Poitier’s most successful and enduring performances.  The film certainly seems modern in comparison to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which now seems old fashioned, clunky and oh-so-worthy. Whilst many of Poitier’s roles were intended to challenge racial stereotypes I feel To Sir with Love is the most successful at doing this.  Thackeray’s primary concern is for his pupil’s future, which is by association the future of the country. Racist taunts (“Chimney Sweep”, “Voodoo” and “Black Magic”) go unchallenged rendering them rather puerile and petty against the responsibility with which Thackeray faces his task. He is a man, outside of time and place, marching towards his goal and rising above the inconsequential.

The British film was successful in the US and I couldn’t help but feel every effort had been made to sell it to the Americans. Admittedly this is during a time when all things British were cool, something we talked about at length when we did the Michael Caine special. The characters express a reverence for the United States and the exterior shots are littered with London Buses and the sounds of “Swinging London”.  Maybe it’s to reinforce the idea that in 1960s London anything could happen, man, notions of class and race no longer apply. Thackeray and Pamela’s dance scene is too long and seems like vehicle for another “groovy” British group.  Lulu (almost 20 at the time of filming) plays one of the schoolgirls and her rendition of the title song went to number 1 in the US Billboard Chart.  Ironically Lulu was one of a number of female British artists including Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield who made their names singing blue eyed soul.  Her biggest hit ‘Shout’ was a cover of The Isley Brothers song.

Somewhat unsettling now is how the film deals with Pamela’s crush on Thackeray and the sexualisation of the school girls is very much of its time.  Thackeray himself refers to “Sluts” and “women’s work” and the films’ tagline starts “A story as fresh as the girls in their minis…” 

IMDb currently lists this film as holding a 7.5 rating.  The ‘More Like This’ section lists, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (mental health) and ‘Philadelphia’ (HIV) which is somewhat disappointing as it suggests this film is still seen as a novelty “challenge prejudice” movie when I think it has much more to offer.  The overall ‘do as you would be done by’ ethic is still pertinent in the Cinema Revisited universe.

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