In theory, there’s not much to do with a celebrity biography, but when the subject is Sidney Poitier, that’s in an unusually target-rich setting. “Sidney,” a documentary from director Reginald Hudlin produced by Oprah Winfrey, does the actor justice, providing context, depth and considerable warmth in chronicling his remarkable life and groundbreaking career.
Counting the actor’s widow, Joanna Shimkus Poitier, and their daughter Anika among its executive producers, the project appropriately celebrates Poitier’s accomplishments but keeps enough distance to cover the more complex aspects of his story. It includes, for example, the turn against the actor in the late 1960s conveyed by a New York Times headline that asked, “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So Much?”, and his years-long extramarital affair with Diahann Carroll, adding an extra layer to their searing chemistry in a clip from “Paris Blues.”
Still, Poitier’s rise from humble beginnings in the Bahamas, emigrating to Florida and then New York to become Hollywood’s first black leading man, requires little embellishment and represents one of those rare biographies in which a single film from not two hours long almost doesn’t feel long enough.
Poitier ventured into acting, where his striking appearance and dignified manner allowed him to escape the pitfalls associated with the black actors relegated to clown or peripheral roles that preceded him. As Morgan Freeman (just one of the talents enlisted to speak of him) puts it, Poitier “never played a menial role,” turning down a movie he objected to early in his career, when he could have used the money as his wife was willing. about to have a baby.
Beginning as a young doctor in “No Way Out” in 1950, Poitier headlined a string of movies that peaked in the ’60s, winning the Academy Award for “Lilies of the Field” and starring in a string of memorable movies. in 1967: Best winners of the films “In the heat of the night”, “To the lord, with love” and “Guess who’s coming to dinner”.
A look at the life of Oscar winner Sidney Poitier
In the first film, it is noted, Poitier pushed for a change in which his character, Detective Virgil Tibbs, slapped back a white plantation owner after the man had punched him, a scene considered shocking in its day. , with Louis Gossett Jr. recalling that moment as “the loudest silence I have ever heard in a theater”.
Poitier died earlier this year and has been interviewed extensively, recounting his biographical material while discussing things like his relationship with his close friend Harry Belafonte, with whom he was active in the civil rights movement. He also acknowledges the character criticism of him during that time as what came to be called the “magic black” to white audiences, and how that impacted him.
“They gave him big shoulders, but he had to carry a lot of weight,” says Denzel Washington. For his part, Robert Redford (who co-starred with Poitier in “Sneakers”) notes that he was “inspired by his activism.”
“Sidney” is understandably so rich and dense with material from the 1950s and 1960s that it is almost guilty of running through Poitier’s contributions in the 1970s and 1980s, making a successful transition to becoming a director (mainly in comedies, including “Stir Crazy”). ”And his trio of films of him with Bill Cosby), helping to create opportunities for black people behind the camera.
Perhaps most of all, Hudlin (chiefly a narrative filmmaker, whose forays into documentaries include “The Black Godfather”) beautifully conveys the price demanded of being the first black leading man, and how Poitier served as “a beacon,” as Freeman puts it, for those who have followed in his footsteps.
“Sidney” casts its own warm glow, in a way that sheds light not only on Poitier’s path but also on the decades in which he forged it.
“Sidney” opens September 23 in select theaters and on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: My wife works for an Apple unit.)