A trailblazing movie star intensely aware of his place in film history, Sidney Poitier published no fewer than three autobiographies during his lifetime, generously sharing what he had lived and learned with those who appreciated his work on films like “In the Heat of night” and “Guess who’s coming to dinner.” But words can only go so far in an era dominated by the moving image, and as such, we’re fortunate that Poitier was open to repeating himself one last time for “Sidney,” the definitive portrait of director Reginald Hudlin for Apple TV+. before his death this year at the age of 94.
Few movie stars have been more inspiring than Poitier, who was more than just a star, but also a symbol to many, whether aspiring black artists or the general public, who saw their own views on civil rights embodied in the characters than he juice. But what about those who were born too late to fully appreciate what this remarkable actor meant to private audiences of role models? Produced by frequently appearing Oprah Winfrey with the participation of Poitier and his family, “Sidney” puts that legacy into context, rebuilding a career that changed the way Hollywood – and the world – viewed the black experience.
Sure, “Sidney” tends toward hagiography at times (Winfrey breaks down in tears at the end, saying, “I love him so much!”), but he’s also honest about the contradictions of this iconic figure. For example, Poitier, who was born three months prematurely in Miami, describes how he modeled his ideals on her parents’ values, which impacted the kind of husband, father, and philanthropist he was determined to become. to become But his own private life was considerably more complicated than theirs, and the film acknowledges that, becoming engaged to three great loves: first wife Juanita Hardy (a fiercely intelligent voice in the film), Diahann Carroll (his “Paris Blues” co-star ”) and widow Joanna Shimkus, whom he met in “The Lost Man” (1969). Interestingly, the film reveals that Shimkus insisted they get married because she was tired of being mistaken for her nanny.
In an intimately up-close and elegantly framed interview, staring directly into the lens, sitting against a gray canvas like the talking heads in “The Black List,” Poitier recounts his upbringing, while corroborating voices chime in to fill in additional details. He grew up in a rural all-black community in the Bahamas, oblivious to the racial hierarchies of the rest of the world. “I didn’t know what a mirror was,” he recalls, but he left the islands at age 15 “with a sense of myself.” Returning to Miami as a teenager, he faced the double whammy of white supremacy and segregation (enforced by the Ku Klux Klan), leaving for New York after a couple of local cops threatened his life.
Hudlin and editor Tony Kent creatively use split screens to provide footage for anecdotes that predate Poitier’s acting career, and bolster the best stories with footage from past talk show appearances. In one of these clips, Poitier demonstrates the thick Bahamian accent he still had when he first auditioned at the American Negro Theatre, and describes the strange patient who took an interest in him when he worked as a dishwasher and taught him how to read. Audiences probably expect to see pundits like Poitier biographer Adam Goudsouzian and cultural commentator Nelson George in a film like this, but Hudlin also enlists Oscar-winning actors Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry to describe Poitier’s influence. in them (Berry wanted to marry him, and Freeman describes him as the “beacon” by which he charted the course of his own career).
We also heard from his old friend Harry Belafonte (whom he directed in 1972’s “Buck and the Preacher”) and Barbra Streisand, with whom Poitier and Paul Newman decided to take control of their creative opportunities through First Artists, a production company. actor-driven he co-founded in 1969. From the start, Poitier was clear enough about what he stood for to turn down roles that didn’t embody his values (which explains airing “The Phenix City Story” early in his career). . And as his influence grew, he struggled to change scripts as needed to reflect the dignity of his characters. Poitier’s story of how his run-in with the authorities in Miami convinced him that Virgil Tibbs wouldn’t just turn the other cheek in “In the Heat of the Night” is the highlight of the film, especially as Spike Lee, Quincy Jones and Freeman. he recalls his reactions to the most satisfying slap in the face of movie history.
The establishment tried to discredit Poitier at one point, citing his admiration for Paul Robeson as evidence of communist leanings, and Poitier openly acknowledges his concern for civil rights and working-class issues, which the government was actively trying to manage in the moment your career. he was taking off (with roles like “Blackboard Jungle” and “A Raisin in the Sun”). The actor appealed to black and white audiences alike and, by 1967, was the country’s biggest box-office draw, starring in “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “To Sir, With Love” in the same year. But the country was changing, and Poitier shares how much it hurt him that some African-Americans saw him as Uncle Tom.
As a documentary, “Sidney” is clearly steeped in the myth of Poitier’s legacy, but his willingness to confront this dimension of his identity, as in the “magical black” gesture of jumping off the train to save Tony Curtis’s character in ” The Defiant Ones” (1958) — shows that he is not above being critical. Behind the camera, Hudlin has graduated from populist “urban” hits (“House Party,” “Boomerang”) to inspirational Black-focused feature films (“Marshall,” “Safety”), and “Sidney” fits her style. most recent activist to work. The film isn’t groundbreaking, but its subject matter certainly was, and Hudlin has the good sense to step out of the way and give Poitier the spotlight, which shines even brighter through the eyes of the talents who followed in his footsteps. the.