A pioneering movie star intensely aware of his place in film history, Sidney Poitier published no fewer than three autobiographies during his life, generously sharing what he’d lived and learned with those who’d appreciated his work in films such 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, and as such, 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 his death this year at the age of 94.
Few movie stars have been more inspirational than Poitier, who was more than just a star, but also a symbol to so many — be they aspiring Black performers or the public at large, who saw their own views on civil rights embodied in the characters he played. But what of those who were born too late to fully appreciate what this remarkable actor meant to audiences deprived of role models? Produced by Oprah Winfrey (who appears frequently throughout) with the participation of Poitier and his family, “Sidney” puts that legacy in context, retracing a career that changed the way that Hollywood — and the world — saw the Black experience.
Sure, “Sidney” tends toward hagiography at times (Winfrey breaks down in tears at the end, gushing, “I just love him so much!”), but it’s also honest about the contradictions of this iconic figure. For example, Poitier — who was born three months premature in Miami — describes how he modeled his ideals on his parents’ values, which impacted 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 as much, engaging 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). Amusingly enough, the film reveals, Shimkus insisted they marry because she was tired of being mistaken for the nanny.
In an elegantly framed, intimately close interview — facing directly into the lens, seated against a gray scrim, 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 wider 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 teen, he was confronted with the dual shock of white supremacy and segregation (enforced by the Ku Klux Klan), leaving for New York after a pair of local police officers threatened his life.
Hudlin and editor Tony Kent use split-screens in creative ways to provide visuals for anecdotes that predate Poitier’s acting career, bolstering the best stories with footage from vintage talk-show appearances. In one of these clips, Poitier demonstrates the strong Bahamian accent he still had when he first auditioned at the American Negro Theatre, and describes the patient stranger who took an interest in him at an early dishwashing job and taught him to read. Audiences probably expect to see experts such as 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 on them (Berry wanted to marry him, and Freeman describes him as the “beacon” by which he set 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 resolved to take control of their creative opportunities via First Artists, an actor-driven production company they co-founded in 1969. From the beginning, Poitier was clear enough about what he stood for to turn down roles that failed to embody his values (which explains passing on “The Phenix City Story” early in his career). And as his influence grew, he fought to change scripts as necessary to reflect the dignity of his characters. Poitier’s story of how his run-in with authorities in Miami convinced him that Virgil Tibbs wouldn’t simply turn the other cheek in “In the Heat of the Night” makes for the film’s high point, especially as Spike Lee, Quincy Jones and Freeman recall their reactions to the most satisfying slap in film history.
The system tried to discredit Poitier at one point, citing his admiration of Paul Robeson as evidence of communist inclinations — and Poitier openly acknowledges his concern for civil rights and working-class issues, which the government was actively trying to manage around the time his career 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, 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 shares 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 its willingness to confront this dimension of his identity — as in the “magical Negro” gesture of jumping off the train to save Tony Curtis’ character in “The Defiant Ones” (1958) — shows that it’s not above being critical. Behind the camera, Hudlin has graduated from populist “urban” hits (“House Party,” “Boomerang”) to inspirational, Black-centric features (“Marshall,” “Safety”), and “Sidney” fits with his more activist recent work. The film isn’t groundbreaking, but its subject most certainly was, and Hudlin has the good sense to get out of the way and give Poitier the spotlight, which shines all the brighter through the eyes of the talents who followed in his footsteps.