Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier)
In so many American inspirational-teacher movies, the rowdy underachievers transformed into educated model citizens are usually black or Latino; leave it to the British to remind us that the social pathologies public-school teachers must combat are a function of class, not race. Case in point: this classic, which cleverly plays with and reverses conventions.
Here, the crusading teacher is Sidney Poitier (just 12 years removed from being the top troublemaker in Blackboard Jungle), and the unruly students are white Londoners. True, the movie has dated badly – Poitier’s Mark Thackeray is automatically cooler than the other teachers just because he’s black and handsome, and the kids seem, by today’s debased standards, awfully well-dressed and well-mannered for a bunch of supposed delinquents. (Maybe it’s because they’re English.)
Still, it’s up to Poitier to challenge these kids to rise above the you’ll-never-amount-to-anything mentality inculcated in them not just by their own poverty but also by the entire British class system. Not only does he do so, through sheer force of personality, but he also inspires Lulu to sing that terrific, soaring theme song about him.