This is the cinematic tribute fans have been searching for.
No one can tell Sidney Poitier’s story better than Sidney Poitier herself.
The brilliance of Reginald Hudlin’s documentary for Apple TV+ is that it can do just that. An incredibly gifted storyteller, Poitier, who died in January 2022 at the age of 94, opens “Sidney” by saying in the voiceover, “I wasn’t expected to live.”
Of course we know that Poitier, who was born two months premature and had his life hanging by a thread, really lived and lived exceptionally well and touched so many other lives with his breakthrough Hollywood career. By telling his own story, primarily through edited footage and voiceovers from seven hours of interviews the film’s producer Oprah Winfrey conducted with Poitier in 2012, “Sidney” can be about this man, not just his milestones.
Many of the stories Poitier tells have previously been told in his books, most notably his superb 2000 memoir The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. How he grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas with no electricity and didn’t even see a car or a mirror until he was a kid. How, growing up in an environment where he was surrounded by black people, he didn’t believe in the color of his skin. And how that all changed when he moved to the United States as a teenager.
As impressive as these stories are on the site, they come to life in “Sidney” in its voiceover and direct-to-camera reporting. Winfrey interviewed Poitier against a gray-black background, with the camera zooming in at crucial moments until his chin and the top of his head touched the edges of the frame. Even then, in his mid-80s, after not acting for more than a decade, he had retained both his charisma and commanding presence.
Charming and leading: Poitier succeeded. Before Poitier there had certainly been strong black presences on screen – Hudlin gives special credit to Paul Robeson in the film – but there wasn’t a black male lead in Hollywood to have two of the top 10 grossing films of any given year like Poitier did reached Best Picture of the Year winner in 1967 with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and To Sir, with Love, along with starring in In the Heat of the Night. After becoming the first Black winner for Best Actor (for “Lilies of the Field”), no less, a few years earlier.
He had mesmerized his audience. Moviegoers flocked to see him. By the time 1968 rolled around, it was the industry’s number one box office hit. But he would also lead — being selective in the roles he chose lest he reinforce the stereotypes about black life that Hollywood had so often peddled. He eventually ended up behind the camera, casting the crews of the films he directed with bottom line Black talent, but even when he was just acting, he brought a perspective and storytelling lens to his characters’ interpretations of the foresight that he will become a director.
But which audience did he charm? “His films were not made for black people,” says the late cultural critic Greg Tate at one point in the film. “Sidney” argues that his films were groundbreaking in accustoming white people to black humanity, a kind of cinematic desegregation that represented small steps toward a more diverse future. Yes, there’s Barbra Streisand, Spike Lee, Lenny Kravitz, Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Winfrey himself appearing on camera to sing Poitier’s praises, but Tate and a few other critics add a little more dimension .
Nelson George talks about how black audiences didn’t believe the famous moment when escaped convict Poitier jumped off the train to help Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones, thereby turning his back on his own freedom. He even suggests that this is a seminal moment in the history of the film’s “magical Negro.” A great montage starring James Brown, which includes clips from Soul Train and blaxploitation films, shows how quickly black culture moved away from Poitier after its 1967 peak.
Poitier himself opens up about his reaction to a New York Times article that asked, “Why do white viewers love Sidney Poitier so much?” because she’s been accused of her talk show — or herself — being “not black enough.”) His friend Harry Belafonte, with whom he has fallen out and reconnected on numerous occasions, is implicitly critical of the actor on multiple occasions. And the film isn’t shy about telling the story of Poitier’s first wife Juanita Hardy, a Columbia graduate while he was only an elementary school educated, and how her marriage ended because of his affair with actress Diahann Carroll.
If the charge that his characters were overly perfect to be safe for white liberal audiences is true, Poitier doesn’t come across as perfect even here. His humanity is revealed all the more. Likewise, his work behind the camera for movies like Buck and the Preacher and Stir Crazy wasn’t aesthetically groundbreaking (George flatly says “he’s not a great visual stylist”), but his work didn’t have to be revolutionary either, because he was revolutionary.
In Sydney, Hudlin has opted for an approach similar to Poitier’s own filmmaking: he doesn’t want to upset the documentary form, but rather the space he gives Poitier to tell his own story and the compelling, cliché-free interviews with the ” Talking Heads’ (95 percent of all the material here was filmed before his death) is so powerful that no additional stylistic intervention is needed.
Hudlin also knows how to tell a story. He has directed the comedies House Party, Boomerang, The Great White Hype, the biopic Marshall, served as President of BET, and has had a side career as a graphic novelist. His appearance in a 2016 ABC special entitled “Marvel’s Captain America: 75 Heroic Years” demonstrated the breadth of his interests and the energy with which he can even speak on camera about, “Why does he fall out of a plane? I don’t know, just roll it!” he once exclaimed, speaking over a popular comic art panel. This enthusiasm for storytelling is also omnipresent in “Sidney”. And so is a confidence, in Hudlin’s name, that no outlandish gimmicks are needed to add extra pop to this story.
“Sidney” is neither an encyclopedic account nor a movie-by-movie account. Your favorite Poitier film might not even be shown (where does The Slender Thread go?). It also avoids some problematic missteps (Preminger’s Porgy and Bess film). But it lets you see through the power of its narrative why the story of Poitier’s life matters. And will always be important.
“Sidney” is now streaming on AppleTV+.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/sidney-review-reginald-hudlin-poitier-documentary-1234765566/ ‘Sidney’ review: Reginald Hudlin’s Poitier documentary soars