Poitier disc includes his Mr. Tibbs movies

New on DVD

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

January 29, 2004|By Terry Lawson | Terry Lawson,KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

I now keep track of holidays, anniversaries and special events almost exclusively via DVD release schedules. Thus, I know Black History Month is a few days away by the release of The Sidney Poitier DVD Collection (MGM), which collects five of the pioneering actor's films.

Even taken out of its context, 1967 best picture Oscar winner In the Heat of the Night remains a stunner. Here, Poitier finally casts off the mantle of nobility he had worn for a decade to play Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide cop who refuses to turn the other cheek to the Mississippi racists who begrudgingly beg his help to solve a murder.

Heat also earned an Oscar for Rod Steiger's performance as the wily sheriff, and Quincy Jones should have gotten one for his score, which features a blistering vocal from Ray Charles on the title song.

The success of Heat, a film that rarely gets the credit it deserves for altering the attitudes of a lot of moviegoers in its pre-Black Power bluntness, spawned two sequels: 1970s They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! whose title was derived from the original film's most famous dialogue exchange, and 1971's The Organization. The first owes a rather obvious debt to the blaxploitation (see below) films that were beginning to emerge, and though the plot is routine, Poitier retains the coiled intensity of Heat.

Surprisingly, The Organization is an improvement, with Tibbs taking on a drug ring.

The DVD set is completed by 1963's Lilies of the Field in which Poitier became the first black man to win the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of an unemployed construction worker who comes to the rescue of a group of nuns in Arizona by helping build them a chapel, and 1968's forgettable For Love of Ivy, which has him playing a sophisticated gambler hired by a white family to romance its maid, played by singer Abbey Lincoln, in an attempt to prevent her from quitting to go to college.

The Best of Soul Cinema (MGM) also collects five films previously issued on DVD, three of which are prime representatives of the blaxploitation era. Hell Up in Harlem, from 1973, has Fred Williamson returning to his "Black Caesar" role of Tommy Gibbs, who, with help from his old man, becomes the godfather of Harlem crime rackets. Coffy, from the same year, has Pam Grier kicking the butts of the drug dealers she holds responsible for the death of her little sister. Then there is Foxy Brown, 1974's funkier and kinkier showcase for Grier as Bad Mama No. 1 and a film legendary for a scene in which Foxy pulls a gun out of her towering Afro.

I'm Gonna Git You Sucka! is a belated blaxploitation parody, with director and star Keenen Ivory Wayans looking to Foxy for inspiration; he returns from 'Nam to find his younger brother dead from an O.G. - an over-gold, a consequence of being weighted down with too many gold chains. Jim Brown and Isaac Hayes are on hand to make fun of themselves, and unlike many of Wayans' subsequent movie satires, this one is consistently clever and on-point.

The outcast in this box is also the best of the batch: 1975's Cooley High, which is too often described as a black American Graffiti but which possesses a poignancy and comic originality that transcend nostalgic obviousness and comparisons.

Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (soon to transfer to Welcome Back Kotter) head an excellent cast of young actors who attend and skip classes at Chicago's Cooley Vocational in 1964, and the film deftly mixes comic cutting-up with scenes of true tenderness and social observation.

Then, of course, there's the soundtrack of Motown hits, which pre-dated The Big Chill. Again, all the DVDs in the box are bare bones.

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