In theory, there’s a lot to do with a celebrity biography, but when the subject is Sidney Poitier, it’s an unusually target-rich environment. “Sidney,” director Reginald Hudlin’s documentary produced by Oprah Winfrey, does the actor justice, providing context, depth and warmth to chronicle his remarkable life and pioneering career.
With the actor’s widow, Joanna Shimkus Poitier, and daughter Anika among its executive producers, the project is a fitting celebration of Poitier’s achievements, but maintains enough distance to cover the more complex aspects of his story. Among other things, it covers the late 1960s turn against the actor, “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” asked a New York Times headline in the late 1960s and his years-long extramarital affair with Diahann Carroll. An extra layer to their fiery chemistry in a clip for “Paris Blues.”
Yet Poitier’s rise from humble beginnings in the Bahamas, to Florida and then New York to becoming Hollywood’s first leading black man, needs little embellishment and represents one of those rare biographies where it’s not the only nearly two-hour film. it doesn’t seem like enough.
Poitier stumbled into acting, where his striking looks and dignified demeanor allowed him to escape the pitfalls associated with those black actors who had been relegated to clownish or peripheral roles before him. As Morgan Freeman puts it (just one of those who named the talent who’s who to discuss him), Poitier “never played a subordinate role,” rejecting a film he opposed early in his career when he could have used the money as his own. his wife was about to have a child.
Beginning as a young doctor in 1950’s “No Way Out,” Poitier led a string of films that culminated in the 1960s, winning an Academy Award for “Lilies of the Field” and starring in a memorable 1967 film: The Best. winning picture “In the Heat of the Night”, “To Sir, With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.
A look into the life of Oscar winner Sidney Poitier
In the first film, it is said, Poitier requested a change in which his character, Detective Virgil Tibbs, punched a white plantation owner after the man beat him up, a scene considered shocking at the time, which Louis Gossett Jr. recalled. moment as “the loudest silence I’ve ever heard in a theater.”
Poitier died earlier this year and has been interviewed extensively, recounting his biographical material while discussing things like his relationship with close friend Harry Belafonte, with whom he was active in the civil rights movement. He also acknowledges the criticism of his characters at the time for what was called “black magic” to white audiences, and how that affected him.
“They gave him big shoulders, but he had to carry a lot of weight,” says Denzel Washington. For his part, Robert Redford (who participated with Poitier in the movie “Sneakers”) stated that he was “inspired by her activism”.
“Sidney” is so rich and dense in material from the 1950s and 60s that it’s almost guilty of racing through Poitier’s contributions in the 70s and 80s, transitioning successfully to directorship (mostly in comedies, including “Stir Crazy” and his trilogy of films). with Bill Cosby), behind the camera helping Black people create opportunities.
Perhaps most of all, Hudlin (primarily a narrative filmmaker, whose documentary credits include “The Black Godfather”) beautifully captures the toll of being the first black male lead, and Poitier served as a “lighthouse,” as Freeman calls it. who have followed in his footsteps.
“Sidney” casts its own warming glow in a way that illuminates not only Poitier’s path, but also the decades he worked on it.
“Sidney” opens September 23 in select theaters and on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: My wife works at an Apple unit.)