Reginald Hudlin’s documentary about Sidney Poitier should be seen as the beginning, not the end, judging the actor’s prolific career. Sidneywhich premiered at TIFF and streamed on Apple TV+ starting September 23, the genre of hagiographic portrait audiences has embraced – even desired – of famous personalities.
This usable opening chronologically recounts Poitier’s legacy, from his birth in 1972 until his death in January 2022. From the very beginning, we know that life is alive. Not guaranteed for the actor. He was born two months premature and many people, including his mother’s midwife, predicted an impending death. The morning after Poitier’s birth, his father bought a shoebox to bury the infant. But Poitier’s mother possessed an unwavering faith: She visited a toothpicker, who told her not to worry about her son’s survival. Poitier will not only live but travel to different corners of the Earth, he will be rich and famous and he will carry his family name all over the world.
An certainly, if not challenged, introduction to a majestic legacy.
Release date: Friday, September 23 (Apple TV+)
Manager: Reginald Hudlin
Writer: Jesse James Miller
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 51 minutes
The story that Poitier tells halfway through the film, serves as a metaphor for the actor’s legacy. He spent his life achieving the impossible: He became an actor, commercially viable, and the first Black person to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. His ascent in Hollywood – an industry historically nationalistic, conservative, and racist – has been more than toothpicks predicted.
Poitier’s early years were marked by movement and discovery. He spent the first fifteen years of his life in the Bahamas, first on Cat Island and then in Nassau. Moving to the capital gave Poitier a broader understanding of the world – there he recalled seeing a car for the first time and learning how reflections in mirrors worked. Hudlin shoots interviews in which Poitier talks up close about his upbringing, so that the actor’s face almost always sinks into the screen. This vantage point reproduces the proximity suggested in Poitier’s performances. When he asked “can you hear me?” after telling the story of the mirror, it feels as if he is speaking to us, the viewers, on a personal level.
It was this presence that made Poitier a successful actor, even though he didn’t start out that way. After 15 years in the Bahamas, Poitier moved to Miami. Before moving to the United States, Poitier didn’t consider what he looked like. “I just saw what I saw,” he said at one point. But his time in Florida changed what he saw and how he handled it. He begins to witness a violent relationship between race and power.
Poitier eventually moved to Harlem, where he worked as a dishwasher and learned to read. He has never acted before but after receiving an audition call in News Amsterdam, he tried his hand on it. The audition went horribly, but Poitier, not the one who was supposed to not, was determined to be better. He bought a radio so he could lose his voice by imitating Norman Brokenshire’s smooth voice. He buys books and attends classes, struggles with ideas while doing various service jobs. When he scored another audition and booked a role, the stage became his therapy. “Acting gives me an area where I can become a showman, where I can vent some of my frustrations, where I can vent some of my embarrassment and other vices. into a fictional character,” Poitier said in the document.
For Poitier, acting was a place of play, a way to survive a life he couldn’t have. Maybe that’s why his performances are so captivating. Once Sidney overcoming the biographical void of the first half, it organizes Poitier’s life through his portrayals. Are from The Defiant Ones and Lilies of the field arrive Guess who will come to join me and Buck and the preacherHudlin uses Poitier’s filmography as a launching pad to discuss the actor’s profession, friendships, love, and success.
Hudlin is no stranger to recreating the lives of giants. He directed the 2019 Netflix documentary about music executive and producer Clarence Avant, Black Godfather. In that movie, like in Sidney, Hudlin assembled a choir of family, friends and admirers of the subject. He arranged their testimonies to fit a fairly conventional narrative pattern: a story of overcoming and then success. The more cluttered aspects of one’s life are seen as marginal.
In Sidney, Hudlin interviews Poitier’s children, ex-wife Juanita Hardy, his friend Henry Belafonte and many others. Their story ties the film into a personal dimension. Perspectives from the likes of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry and Spike Lee have placed Poitier in a lasting legacy of Black actors. Writers like the late Greg Tate and Poitier’s historian Aram Goudsouzian add an essential layer of cultural and contextual criticism.
But no voice sounded louder or more passionate than that of Oprah Winfrey, who also produced the documentary. She tells about the first time she met Poitier, how he formed her sense of what could happen. When she talked about their first interaction, at a birthday party hosted by Quincy Jones for her, her voice quivered, hinting at tears to come.
There are moments in Sidney helping to shake off the canonical atmosphere to achieve a more complex portrait of Poitier. In these parts of the document, Hudlin addresses Poitier’s love affair with Paris Blues co-star Diahann Carroll; his struggles to maintain his integrity; his painful divorce from Hardy; and a tumultuous friendship with Belafonte, with whom he often vie for roles. Poitier emerges from these glimpses as a man shouldering the responsibility of representation while trying to figure out his own life; they are not only the strongest parts of the document, but they also feel like the most honest.