Sidney Poitier, a trailblazing actor who was well aware of his place in cinematic history, wrote not one but three autobiographies throughout his lifetime, generously sharing his experiences with the fans of his films like “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”
We are lucky that, before his death this year at the age of 94, Poitier was willing to repeat himself for “Sidney,” director Reginald Hudlin’s definitive portrayal for Apple TV+, because words can only go so far in an era dominated by the moving picture.
There have been few more influential actors in Hollywood than Poitier, who was more than simply a celebrity but also a symbol to so many, whether they were aspiring Black artists or the general public who saw their own beliefs on civil rights mirrored in the characters he played.
However, what about the future generations who will never know the impact this extraordinary actor had on a generation without strong male role models?
The documentary “Sidney,” produced by Oprah Winfrey who makes multiple appearances with the help of Poitier and his family, places that legacy in perspective by charting a career that altered how Hollywood and the rest of the world viewed the Black experience.
While “Sidney” does go toward hagiography at times Winfrey sobs at the end, declaring, “I simply adore him so much!”, it is also forthright about the complexities of this great man. Poitier, who was born three months early in Miami, discusses how his parents’ beliefs shaped the kind of husband, father, and philanthropist he aspired to be.
His personal life, however, was even more convoluted than theirs, as the film shows through its interactions with his three major loves: first wife Juanita Hardy a ferociously brilliant voice in the film, and co-star Diahann Carroll from “Paris Blues”, and widow Joanna Shimkus from “The Lost Man” (1969).
The film’s revelation that Shimkus insisted on a marriage proposal after she became tired of being misidentified as the nanny is both amusing and touching.
Poitier talks about his childhood in a close, gorgeously shot interview; he is facing the camera and is seated against a gray scrim, just like the talking heads in “The Black List.” Other voices give details about his upbringing. He was raised in a small, isolated Black village in the Bahamas and was therefore sheltered from the realities of the world’s racial stratifications.
He left the islands at age 15 “with a sense of himself” despite having never seen a mirror before: “I didn’t know what a mirror was.” When moving away from Miami as a child, he returned as a teenager and experienced the double shock of white supremacy and segregation enforced by the Ku Klux Klan, ultimately relocating to New York after two local police officers threatened his life.
The strongest stories are bolstered by film from old talk-show appearances, which Hudlin and editor Tony Kent employ ingeniously with split screens to present. In one of these movies, Poitier exhibits the thick Bahamian accent he still possessed when he initially auditioned at the American Negro Theatre, and he also talks about the patient stranger who took an interest in him while he was working as a dishwasher and taught him to read.
Though Poitier scholars like biographer Adam Goudsouzian and cultural critic Nelson George are expected to appear in a film like this, director Benh Hudlin also has Oscar winners Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Halle Berry discussing the impact Poitier had on their lives. Berry was interested in marrying him, and Freeman calls him the “beacon” that guided his own professional development.
Longtime friend Harry Belafonte whom he directed in 1972’s “Buck and the Preacher” and Barbra Streisand share their thoughts on Poitier and Paul Newman’s decision to take charge of their creative prospects by forming First Artists, an actor-driven production company, in 1969.
Poitier had strong convictions from the start, and he turned down jobs that didn’t align with them like “The Phenix City Story,” which he passed on because it didn’t represent his principles.
Additionally, as his stature grew, he campaigned for script modifications that would better honor his characters.
The film’s high point comes when Poitier describes how his encounter with Miami police convinced him that Virgil Tibbs wouldn’t simply turn the other cheek in “In the Heat of the Night,” with Spike Lee, Quincy Jones, and Morgan Freeman recalling their reactions to the most satisfying slap in cinematic history.
While Poitier’s career was taking off with roles like “Blackboard Jungle” and “A Raisin in the Sun”, the government was actively trying to manage civil rights and working-class issues, which Poitier openly acknowledges were important to him. The system tried to discredit Poitier at one point by using his admiration of Paul Robeson as evidence of communist inclinations.
After starring in “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “To Sir, With Love” in 1967, the actor had become the biggest box office draw in the country.
However, the times were changing, and Poitier opens up about how the perception that he was an Uncle Tom damaged him.
While “Sidney” is clearly committed to the myth of Poitier’s legacy as a documentary, it is not above being critical of this aspect of his identity, as evidenced by its depiction of his “magical Negro” action of jumping off the train to save Tony Curtis’ character in “The Defiant Ones” (1958).
Hudlin’s filmography spans from commercially successful “urban” movies like “House Party” and “Boomerang” to more serious, activist fare like “Marshall” and “Safety,” and “Sidney” is much at home in that canon.
The picture itself isn’t very innovative, but Poitier’s life was, and director Reginald Hudlin has the good sense to back aside and let him shine at the film’s brightest moments, which are heightened by the presence of actors who followed in Poitier’s footsteps.