Aside from being a terrific, award-winning actor and a talented director (particularly of comedies), Sidney Poitier was a man in the right place at the right time. Or at least that’s what the new documentary about his life and career, produced by Oprah Winfrey, would have us believe (I’m not disputing that, but I happen to think it was more about the talent than luck). From director Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang), Sidney moves more or less in a straight line through Poitier’s life and his lifelong desire to not only impress his Bahamian parents but to live his life according to their example of what it meant to be a man and a good father.
With interviews from a small army of people he worked with, as well as an endless supply of family members (including six children), the documentary takes us from his early days at the American Negro Theatre, his decades-long friendship with singer and fellow activist Harry Belafonte, and his breakthrough role opposite Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones, which received nine Academy Award nominations. One of the funniest and most telling moments in the film involves many of those interviewed explaining that Poitier’s character’s decision to jump off a moving train to help save Curtis’s character was something Black audiences did not respond well to because it simply wasn’t believable. But Poitier understood why the character did it, because he himself was a proponent of rewarding loyalty.
The film hits all the highlights, such as A Raisin in the Sun, Lilies of the Field, To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, all of which were groundbreaking hits in their own ways. The film also shows the parallels of what was going on in the civil rights movement during Poitier’s rise to fame; he was a major part of that movement, despite his image as a “safe” Black actor who had many white fans. Though, as Black activism grew during the 1960s, Poitier began to be seen by many as being part of the problem by being so commonly liked by white moviegoers.
Poitier also struggled on the home front, once he began a quite public affair with actor Diahann Carroll, his co-star in Paris Blues. He was very much in love, but his commitment to the kids from his first marriage was sound. As one of his daughters tells us, he didn’t believe in having separate families, so everyone grew up knowing everybody and growing up together. The film’s emphasis on Poitier, the family man, adds a depth to this profile it might otherwise not have had, especially when it becomes clear that he left acting to pursue directing because it gave him more time to be with the family.
The parade of talking heads is perhaps a bit indulgent, although it becomes apparent that work on this film began before Poitier’s death earlier this year, since it features a new interview with its subject. Also on hand are Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Barbra Streisand (who formed a film production company with Poitier and Paul Newman), Robert Redford, Lenny Kravitz (Diahann Carroll was his aunt), Louis Gossett Jr., Quincy Jones, Morgan Freeman, Spike Lee, and culture writer Nelson George. Not all of these interview subjects knew or worked with Poitier, but their knowledge and ability to place his work and activism in context is invaluable in most cases. Not to knock producer Winfrey, but she manages to simultaneously provide some of the most personal connections to Poitier’s career, in terms of serving as an inspiration for her, and gush over him uncontrollably (complete with tears) as his biggest fan. It’s sweet but completely unnecessary in the context of this film.
Hudlin’s direction is to the point and free of too many visual frills, which for the no-nonsense Poitier seems appropriate. The film’s best moments are when the actor/director speaks for himself, spinning stories about his life that sound like he’s told them so many times that they’ve become mythology, though I have no reason to doubt a single word he says. It’s the type of story that could only happen to one person, during one very particular time in American history, and the result is one of the single most revered artists of the 20th century (even if he did direct movies with Bill Cosby in them, which are barely touched upon). Sidney is a fitting tribute to both the man and his impact on the times and the art form.
The film opens exclusively in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center and begins streaming on Apple TV+, both on Friday, September 23.
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