The Defiant Ones
May 7th, 2022

The Defiant Ones [1958]

Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle as we screen six films starring the late, great Sidney Poitier. Third up is Stanley Kramer’s Oscar-winning (Best Screenplay & Best Cinematography) film The Defiant Ones [1958].

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Venue Information:

Downtown Central Library Auditorium
1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo, NY 14203
(Enter from Clinton Street between Oak and Washington Streets)
716-858-8900 •
COVID protocol will be followed.

TrailerSynopsisActor BioDirector BioLinks

Two prisoners, one black and one white, must work together as they make a desperate bid for freedom while being manacled to each other after they escape from a chain gang in the Deep South. An Oscar winner for the screenplay, and stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis were both nominated for Best Actor.


  • Berlin International Film Festival – 1958 – Winner: Best Actor (Silver Berlin Bear)
  • Academy Awards – 1959 – Nominee: Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Film Editing & Best Actor in a Leading Role (2)
  • Academy Awards – 1959 – Winner: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen & Best Cinematography, Black-and-White
  • BAFTA Awards – 1959 – Winner: UN Award & Best Foreign Actor
  • Writers Guild of America – 1959 – Winner: Best Written American Drama (Screen)
  • Golden Globes (USA) – 1959 – Nominee: Best Actor – Drama (2), Best Supporting Actress, Best Director & Best Film Promoting International Understanding
  • Golden Globes (USA) – 1959 – Winner: Best Motion Picture – Drama

“I never had an occasion to question color, therefore, I only saw myself as what I was… a human being.”

Courtesy of TCM:

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” returned Poitier to the familiar turf of “Negro problem” pictures, but with a contemporized twist: instead of battling the unabashed ignorance of racist America, he found himself opposite sophisticated Northerners played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (in his last film). The grand old screen duo played an ostensibly enlightened couple who find their liberal sensibilities strained when their daughter brings home her fiancé, an older, divorced doctor, who just happens to be Poitier. Again under Kramer’s direction, the picture parlayed the myriad pitfalls of the stark realities simple “love” still faced, given the country’s darkly drawn racial lines, especially at the zenith of the civil rights movement; the Supreme Court had just that summer struck down 14 Southern states’ standing laws against interracial marriages, and Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated while the film was still in theaters. The film’s heady discourse struck a chord, taking in a for-the-time whopping $56.7 million at the box office in North America.

But Poitier’s most dauntlessly cool performance came in “In the Heat of the Night,” a steamy neo-noir that set Poitier in the heart of the deep South – still so blatantly segregated that Poitier nixed location shooting in Mississippi, prompting the production to move to tiny Sparta, IL. Poitier played a Philadelphia homicide detective, Virgil Tibbs, initially accused of a murder in a hick Mississippi town, who then assists the local Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger) solve the case. Under the deft direction of Norman Jewison, Poitier and Steiger played a dueling character study; a sophisticated black authority the likes of which the town has never seen versus an abrasive, outwardly racist yokel stereotype more enlightened and thoughtful than he lets on. The film also proved a hit, winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor (Steiger).

Poitier’s three films in 1967 made him, by total box-office receipts, the No. 1 box-office draw in Hollywood. And yet, even in the thick of his success, Poitier’s singular identification as the spokesman for African-Americans came with proportionate scrutiny. While he had embraced the civil rights movement publicly – he keynoted the annual convention of Martin Luther King’s activist Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August 1967 – some in the African-American community (as well as some film critics) began vocalizing their displeasure with the never-ending string of saintly and sexless characters Poitier played. Black playwright and drama critic Clifford Mason became the sounding board for these sentiments in an analysis published on the front page of The New York Times’ drama section on Sept. 10, 1967. Mason referred to Poitier’s characters as “unreal” and essentially “the same role, the antiseptic, one-dimensional hero.”

Although devastated by the attacks, Poitier himself had begun to chafe against the cultural restrictions which cast him as the unimpeachable role model instead of a fully flawed and functioning human. Sidney Poitier attempted to take a greater hand in his work, penning a romantic comedy that he would star in called “For the Love of Ivy” (1968), and attempting a more visceral representation of the travails of inner city America in “The Lost Man” (1969), but neither met the success of his previous films or effectively muted his critics. The Times’ Vincent Canby called the latter, “Poitier’s attempt to recognize the existence and root causes of black militancy without making anyone – white or black – feel too guilty or hopeless.” He also founded a creator-controlled studio, First Artists Corp., with partners Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand. But his damaged image, amid an up-and-coming crop of black actors unencumbered by his “integrationist” stigma, enforced a sense of isolation about Poitier, likely amplified by a falling out with his longtime friend Belafonte and his estrangement from wife Juanita.

Some of that oddly went reflected in an unlikely, blaxploitation-infused sequel, “They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!” (1970), in which he reprised his classic character to ill-effect. By 1970, Poitier had struck up a passionate new romance with Canadian model Joanna Shimkus and exiled himself to a semi-permanent residence in The Bahamas. He would make one more forgettable Tibbs sequel, “The Organization” (1971), but he would return to Hollywood in a different capacity.

With Hollywood now recognizing the power of the black purse, even for cheaply produced “blaxploitation” pictures, Columbia saw the potential for “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), in which Harry Belafonte and Poitier would play mismatched Western adventurers who team up to save homesteading former slaves from cowboy predators. Belafonte co-produced and Poitier, after initial squabbles with the director, was given reign and Poitier, after initial squabbles with the director, was given reign by the studio to complete the film in the director’s chair.

He produced, directed and starred in his next outing, a tepid romance called “A Warm December” (1973), which tanked, but he found his stride soon after back among friends. He directed and starred with Belafonte, Bill Cosby and an up-and-coming Richard Pryor in their answer to the blaxploitation wave, “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), an action/comedy romp about two regular guys (Cosby and Poitier) whose devil-may-care night out becomes an odyssey through the criminal underworld. “Uptown” proved such a winning combo that Poitier would make two more successful buddy pictures starring himself and Cosby: “Let’s Do it Again” (1975) and “A Piece of the Action” (1977).

Poitier also returned to Africa and an actor-only capacity for another anti-apartheid film, “The Wilby Conspiracy” (1975), co-starring Michael Caine. After marrying Shimkus in 1976, he returned to the States most notably to direct Pryor’s own buddy picture; the second comedy pairing Pryor with Gene Wilder, “Stir Crazy” (1980), a story about two errant New Yorkers framed for a crime in the west and imprisoned. With Poitier letting the two actors’ fish-out-of-water comic talents play off their austere environs, the film became one of highest-grossing comedies of all time. A later outing with Wilder, “Hanky Panky” (1982), and a last directorial turn with Cosby, the infamous flop “Ghost Dad” (1990), proved profoundly less successful.

After more than a decade absent from the screen, Poitier made a celebrated return as an actor in the 1988 action flick “Shoot to Kill” and the espionage thriller “Little Nikita” (1988), though both proved less than worthy of the milestone. He would take parts rarely after that; only those close to his heart in big-budget TV movie events: NAACP lawyer -later the U.S.’s first African-American Supreme Court justice – Thurgood Marshall in “Separate But Equal” (ABC, 1991), Nelson Mandela, the heroic South African dissident and later president, in “Nelson & De Klerk” (Showtime, 1997), and “To Sir, With Love II” (CBS, 1996). He also took some choice supporting roles in feature actioners “Sneakers” (1992) and “The Jackal” (1997).

In 1997, the Bahamas appointed Poitier its ambassador to Japan, and has also made him a representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Poitier No. 22 in the top 25 male screen legends, and in 2006, the AFI’s list of the “100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time” tabulated more Poitier films than those of any other actor except Gary Cooper (both had five). In 2002, he was given an Honorary Oscar with the inscription, “To Sidney Poitier in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being,” and in 2009, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. trade, accepts one teaching marginal, troubled cockney students in London and reached them via honest empathy and by treating them as adults. Buoyed by the popular title song by Brit-pop star Lulu (who also played a student), the film became a sleeper hit.


  • Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You (2013)
  • Sing Your Song (2011)
  • Tell Them Who You Are (2004)
  • The Last Brickmaker in America (2001)
  • The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn (1999)
  • Free of Eden (1999)
  • David and Lisa (1998)
  • Mandela and de Klerk (1997)
  • The Jackal (1997)
  • To Sir With Love II (1996)
  • Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick (1995)
  • A Century Of Cinema (1994)
  • World Beat (1993)
  • Sneakers (1992)
  • Shoot To Kill (1988)
  • Little Nikita (1988)
  • The Spencer Tracy Legacy (1986)
  • A Piece Of The Action (1977)
  • The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)
  • Let’s Do It Again (1975)
  • Uptown Saturday Night (1974)
  • Buck and the Preacher (1972)
  • A Warm December (1972)
  • Brother John (1971)
  • The Organization (1971)
  • King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis (1970)
  • They Call Me MISTER Tibbs (1970)
  • The Lost Man (1969)
  • For Love of Ivy (1968)
  • To Sir, With Love (1967)
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
  • In the Heat of the Night (1967)
  • Duel at Diablo (1966)
  • A Patch of Blue (1965)
  • The Slender Thread (1965)
  • The Bedford Incident (1965)
  • The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
  • The Long Ships (1964)
  • Lilies of the Field (1963)
  • Pressure Point (1962)
  • A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
  • Paris Blues (1961)
  • All the Young Men (1960)
  • Virgin Island (1960)
  • Porgy and Bess (1959)
  • The Defiant Ones (1958)
  • The Mark of the Hawk (1958)
  • Edge of the City (1957)
  • Band of Angels (1957)
  • Something of Value (1957)
  • Good-Bye, My Lady (1956)
  • Blackboard Jungle (1955)
  • Go Man Go (1954)
  • Red Ball Express (1952)
  • Cry, the Beloved Country (1952)
  • No Way Out (1950)

“I’m always pursuing the next dream, hunting for the next truth.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Stanley Kramer made his reputation during the 1950s and 60s as one of the few producers and directors willing to tackle issues most studios sought to avoid, such as racism, the Holocaust and nuclear annihilation. He came to Hollywood an aspiring writer and hooked on with MGM, working first as a scenery mover and carpenter and then in their research department before spending three years there as an editor. He wrote for radio as well as for Columbia and Republic Studios for awhile, but it was as a strong-willed independent producer that Kramer would finally make his mark. Though his first feature (“So This Is New York,” 1948) flopped, he hit his stride with his next one, the intense and exciting anti-boxing pic “Champion” (1949), which propelled Kirk Douglas to stardom and launched Mark Robson’s career as an important director.

The series of commercially successful economy productions that followed, by turns prestigious and socially responsible and all scripted by “Champion” screenwriter Carl Foreman, established Kramer as bankable in the industry’s eyes. Both Robson’s “Home of the Brave” (1949), which addressed the persecution of a black soldier by his white comrades, and Fred Zinnemann’s “The Men” (1950), a drama about paraplegic war veterans featuring Marlon Brando in his first screen role, were melodramas with provocatively modern and relevant situations and settings. Kramer then took a holiday from the contemporary tracts with “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950), a film that earned a Best Actor Oscar for Jose Ferrer. By the time the last and best of these, the allegorical Western “High Noon” (1952), won an aging Gary Cooper a Best Actor Oscar (among the four it received), Kramer had already made his deal with the devil, having agreed to produce 30 films over a five year period for Columbia.

Money spoiled the look Kramer had managed to give his independent pictures. The films he oversaw for Columbia were glossier and closer in “production values” to other big-studio productions but lacked the do-it-yourself excitement of his earlier work, and all but the last one lost money. Edward Dmytryk’s hugely successful screen version of Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” (1954) would cover the losses of the other nine, but Columbia had already seen enough and bought out his contract before the film’s release, opening the door for him to fulfill a long-standing ambition to direct as well as produce his films. Although his films for Columbia fell below the standards he had set on his own, most boasted fine acting and probably deserved better than they got, but adaptations of “Death of a Salesman” (1951) and “Member of the Wedding” (1952) proved too highbrow for the public while the remarkable cult children’s film “The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr T” (1953), a fantasy devised by Dr Seuss, was just a little too “out there” for the times.

“Not As a Stranger” (1955), a melodramatic hospital story which critics disparaged as well-acted fluff, started Kramer’s directing career off with a commercial bang, but his second film, “The Pride and the Passion” (1957), was the silliest project he ever undertook. “The Defiant Ones” (1958), regarded by many as his best directorial effort, returned to the race card and began his ten-year run as one of the most successful (and certainly the most earnest) directors in Hollywood. Kramer then tackled the problem of The Bomb itself with “On the Beach” (1959), arranging its simultaneous release in 18 cities, including Moscow, to help save the world, before helming two courtroom dramas based on real events, “Inherit the Wind” (1960), the gripping tale of the Scopes’ “monkey” trial, and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), his indictment of Nazi war atrocities. Although the subject matter addressed was always important, Kramer’s excessive forthrightness stacked the deck to manipulate sentiment, causing many critics to resent his heavy-handedness, no one more than Pauline Kael who repeatedly assailed his “self-righteous, self-congratulatory” tone.

After picking up the 1961 Irving G Thalberg Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his social responsibility, Kramer switched to comedy, giving slapstick a black eye with his overly ambitious “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” (1963), before returning to the more serious terrain of Katherine Anne Porter’s novel “Ship of Fools” (1995), which he dispatched in an absorbingly well-paced, tidily knit adaptation. Of course, the audience could not possibly miss the point that the world’s weakness permitted Hitler’s rise since there was an urbane and sardonic dwarf (Michael Dunn) to spell it out for them, yet despite the lack of subtlety exhibited during his heyday, Kramer consistently put great acting on display. His last big success, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), was no exception, offering sterling performances by Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn that overcame a saccharine screenplay which nonetheless dealt with the then relatively taboo subject of interracial marriage. Could any eye stay dry at its end when he sustained that two shot of Tracy in profile on the left foreground of the screen and Hepburn, her eyes brimming with tears, in the right background looking at the love of her life knowing full well he is not long for the world?

Of Kramer’s remaining six films, “Oklahoma Crude” (1973), with its careful attention to period detail and fine performances by Faye Dunaway, George C Scott and Jack Palance, was probably the best, but after increasingly negative notices for “The Domino Principle” (1977) and the downright disastrous “The Runner Stumbles” (1979), there were no longer any studios willing to sponsor the man once regarded as the “conscience” of Hollywood. The hostility of the critical establishment towards Kramer is no doubt to some extent a reaction against the excessive praise which greeted his early work, but there can also be little doubt that he achieved his highest quality of artistic expression as an independent producer of the late 40s and early 50s, benefiting from fine scripts by Carl Foreman and the complementary vision of his men at the helm. Though flawed by their lack of even-handedness, his pictures as a producer-director were invariably intelligent, ambitious and well-intentioned efforts striking morally (and commercially) responsive chords for their times. In his later years, Kramer often turned up on TV interview documentaries about Hollywood’s past, proving himself a lively raconteur and unabashed fan of the many talented people with whom he had worked. In 1997, he published his memoirs, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A Life in Hollywood.”


  • The Runner Stumbles (1979)
  • The Domino Principle (1977)
  • Oklahoma Crude (1973)
  • Bless the Beasts & Children (1971)
  • R. P. M. (1970)
  • The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969)
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
  • Ship of Fools (1965)
  • It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
  • Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
  • Inherit the Wind (1960)
  • On the Beach (1959)
  • The Defiant Ones (1958)
  • The Pride and the Passion (1957)
  • Not As a Stranger (1955)

Here is a curated selection of links for additional insight/information:

  • Cultivate Cinema Circle info-sheet – link
  • “Viewed as a physical test of black and white, The Defiant Ones has a structure quite revolutionary for a Hollywood film…The artists involved in The Defiant Ones did not, however, dwell on the tensions in the film. The message, Poitier declared, was a gentle call for brotherhood: ‘It doesn’t pretend to give a cure-all for hate-thy-neighbor but it does say ‘I’m going through a hell of a lot with you, and still don’t dig everything about you, but in some ways you’re not so bad after all.” Americans in 1958 found both this message and the film ‘not so bad after all,’ and Defiant Ones [was nominated for] the Oscar for best picture of the year; Stanley Kramer [was nominated for] the Oscar as best director, and the script was declared best script. In a landmark move, however, something even more dramatic happened in the Academy: Sidney Poitier became the first black ever nominated for the best actor award. Though he didn’t win, The Defiant Ones brought him to the forefront of American actors.” – Lester J Keyser & Andre H. Ruszkowski, The Cinema of Sidney Poitier [1980] – link
  • “The theme of The Defiant Ones is that what keeps men apart is their lack of knowledge of one another. With that knowledge comes respect, and with respect comradeship and even love. This thesis is exercised in terms of a colored and a white man, both convicts chained together as they make their break for freedom from a Southern prison gang. The performances by Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are virtually flawless. Poitier captures all of the moody violence of the convict, serving time because he assaulted a white man who had insulted him. It is a cunning, totally intelligent portrayal that rings powerfully true. As ‘Jocker’ Jackson, the arrogant white man chained to a fellow convict whom he hates, Curtis delivers a true surprise performance. He starts off as a sneering, brutal character, willing to fight it out to-the-death with his equally stubborn companion. When, in the end, he sacrifices a dash for freedom to save Poitier, he has managed the transition with such skill that sympathy is completely with him. Picture has other surprises, not the least of which is Kramer’s sensitive and skilled direction, this being only his third try at calling the scenes. The scenes of Poitier and Curtis groping their way painfully out of a deep clay pit, their perilous journey down the river, as well as their clumsy attempt to break into a store and the subsequent near-lynch scene, become integral parts of the larger chase, for the posse is never far behind.” – Fred Hift, Variety [1957] – link
  • The Defiant Ones, Stanley Kramer’s third directorial try proves, at least to me, that Kramer is an excellent producer but an uninspired director…Defiant Ones repeats all his previous directorial weaknesses. The plot is excellent, casting is excellent, production is excellent. In the hands of a Zinnemann or a Kazan, the film would have become a minor masterpiece. As it is, the picture goes through its prescribed motions, but remains shallow and on the surface. Kramer lacks the necessary creative sensibility; no inspiration visits him. One can see that he worked hard, as in all his previous films. He made careful drawings for every shot, he planned every image of his movie. However, as is the case with all Hollywood Eisensteins, instead of aiding the film, this meticulous pre-planning only helps to kill whatever inspiration, spontaneity, or improvisation remains.” — Jonas Mekas, Village Voice [1958] – link

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