Sidney Poitier, a trailblazing movie star who was deeply aware of his place in cinema history, published no fewer than three autobiographies during his lifetime, generously sharing what he had experienced and learned with those who had appreciated his work in such films as “In the Heat of the Night’ and ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’. But words can only reach so far in an era dominated by the moving image, which is why we’re fortunate that Poitier was open to repeating himself one last time for “Sidney” – director Reginald Hudlin’s definitive portrait for Apple TV+ – before passed away this year at the age of 94.
Few movie stars inspire more than Poitier, who was more than just a star but also a symbol to so many – whether aspiring black performers or the general public, who saw their own views on civil rights embodied in the characters he played. But what about those born too late to fully understand what this remarkable actor meant to an audience devoid of role models? Produced by Oprah Winfrey (who appears regularly) with the collaboration of Poitier and his family, “Sidney” puts that legacy into context and outlines a career that changed the way Hollywood — and the world — saw the Black experience.
Sure, “Sidney” tends to be hagiography at times (Winfrey bursts into tears at the end, gushing, “I just love him so much!”), but it’s also honest about this iconic figure’s contradictions. For example, Poitier, who was born three months early in Miami, describes how he modeled his ideals after his parents’ values, which influenced the kind of husband, father, and philanthropist he was determined to become. But his own private life was considerably more complicated than theirs, and the film acknowledges that too, coming into contact with three great loves: first wife Juanita Hardy (a fiercely intelligent voice in the film), Diahann Carroll (his co star in “Paris Blues”) and widow Joanna Shimkus, whom he met on “The Lost Man” (1969). Funnily enough, the film reveals that Shimkus insisted they get married because she was tired of being the nanny since.
In an elegantly framed, intimately closed interview — straight into the lens, sitting against a gray canvas, like the talking heads in “The Black List” — Poitier recounts his upbringing, as affirmative voices pour 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, faced with the double shock of white supremacy and segregation (enforced by the Ku Klux Klan), he left for New York after a few local police officers threatened his life.
Hudlin and editor Tony Kent use split screens in creative ways to visualize anecdotes from before Poitier’s acting career and amplify the best stories with footage of vintage talk show performances. In one of these clips, Poitier demonstrates the strong Bahamian accent he still had when he first auditioned at the American Negro Theater, describing the patient stranger who took an interest in him at an early dishwashing job and taught him 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 explore Poitier’s influence on them. (Berry wanted to marry him, and Freeman describes him as the “beacon” with which he charted the course of his own career).
We also hear from longtime 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 their creative potential through First Artists, an actor-driven production company. that they co-founded in 1969. From the beginning, Poitier was clear enough about what he stood for to turn down roles that didn’t embody his values (which explains why he passed on “The Phenix City Story” early in his career). And as his influence grew, he fought to change scripts as needed to reflect the dignity of his characters. Poitier’s story of how his encounter with the authorities in Miami convinced him that Virgil Tibbs wouldn’t just turn the other cheek in “In the Heat of the Night” makes for the film’s climax, especially as Spike Lee, Quincy Jones, and Freeman recall their reactions to the most satisfying blow in movie history.
The system at one point tried to discredit Poitier by citing his admiration for Paul Robeson as evidence of communist leanings—and Poitier openly acknowledges his concern for civil rights and workers’ issues, which the government was actively trying to control around the time of his death. career took off (with roles such as “Blackboard Jungle” and “A Raisin in the Sun”). The actor appealed to both black and white audiences, and in 1967 he 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 said how much it hurt that some African Americans saw him as an Uncle Tom.
As a documentary, “Sidney” is clearly invested in the myth of Poitier’s legacy, but his willingness to face this dimension of his identity – such as in the “magic Negro” gesture of jumping off the train to reveal Tony Curtis’ character. save in “The Defiant Ones” (1958) — shows it’s not above criticism. Behind the camera, Hudlin has graduated from populist “urban” hits (“House Party”, “Boomerang”) to inspirational black-focused movies ( “Marshall”, “Safety”), and “Sidney” fit his more activist recent work. The film isn’t groundbreaking, but the subject matter certainly was, and Hudlin has the good sense to get out of the way and Poitier in the spotlight, which shines all the brighter through the eyes of the talents who followed in his footsteps.