A pioneering film star intensely conscious of his place in movie historical past, Sidney Poitier revealed no fewer than three autobiographies throughout his life, generously sharing what he’d lived and discovered with those that’d appreciated his work in movies similar to “Within the Warmth of the Night time” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” However phrases can solely attain to date in an period dominated by the shifting picture, and as such, we’re lucky that Poitier was open to repeating himself one final time for “Sidney” — director Reginald Hudlin’s definitive portrait for Apple TV+ — earlier than his dying this yr on the age of 94.
Few film stars have been extra inspirational than Poitier, who was greater than only a star, but in addition a logo to so many — be they aspiring Black performers or the general public at massive, who noticed their very own views on civil rights embodied within the characters he performed. However what of those that had been born too late to totally respect what this exceptional actor meant to audiences disadvantaged of function fashions? Produced by Oprah Winfrey (who seems regularly all through) with the participation of Poitier and his household, “Sidney” places that legacy in context, retracing a profession that modified the way in which that Hollywood — and the world — noticed the Black expertise.
Positive, “Sidney” tends towards hagiography at instances (Winfrey breaks down in tears on the finish, gushing, “I simply love him a lot!”), however it’s additionally trustworthy concerning the contradictions of this iconic determine. For instance, Poitier — who was born three months untimely in Miami — describes how he modeled his beliefs on his mother and father’ values, which impacted the form of husband, father and philanthropist he was decided to grow to be. However his personal non-public life was significantly extra sophisticated than theirs, and the movie acknowledges as a lot, partaking with three nice loves: first spouse Juanita Hardy (a fiercely clever voice within the movie), Diahann Carroll (his co-star in “Paris Blues”) and widow Joanna Shimkus, whom he met on “The Misplaced Man” (1969). Amusingly sufficient, the movie reveals, Shimkus insisted they marry as a result of she was uninterested in being mistaken for the nanny.
In an elegantly framed, intimately shut interview — dealing with instantly into the lens, seated towards a grey scrim, just like the speaking heads in “The Black Checklist” — Poitier recounts his upbringing, whereas corroborating voices chime in to fill in extra particulars. He grew up in a rural all-Black neighborhood within the Bahamas, oblivious to the racial hierarchies of the broader world. “I didn’t know what a mirror was,” he recollects, however he left the islands at age 15 “with a way of myself.” Returning to Miami as a teen, he was confronted with the twin shock of white supremacy and segregation (enforced by the Ku Klux Klan), leaving for New York after a pair of native cops threatened his life.
Hudlin and editor Tony Kent use split-screens in inventive methods to supply visuals for anecdotes that predate Poitier’s performing profession, bolstering the very best tales with footage from classic talk-show appearances. In considered one of these clips, Poitier demonstrates the robust Bahamian accent he nonetheless had when he first auditioned on the American Negro Theatre, and describes the affected person stranger who took an curiosity in him at an early dishwashing job and taught him to learn. Audiences most likely anticipate to see consultants similar to Poitier biographer Adam Goudsouzian and cultural commentator Nelson George in a movie like this, however Hudlin additionally enlists Oscar-winning actors Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry to explain Poitier’s affect on them (Berry needed to marry him, and Freeman describes him because the “beacon” by which he set the course of his personal profession).
We additionally hear from longtime good 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 management of their inventive alternatives through First Artists, an actor-driven manufacturing firm they co-founded in 1969. From the start, Poitier was clear sufficient about what he stood for to show down roles that did not embody his values (which explains passing on “The Phenix Metropolis Story” early in his profession). And as his affect grew, he fought to vary scripts as essential to replicate the dignity of his characters. Poitier’s story of how his run-in with authorities in Miami satisfied him that Virgil Tibbs wouldn’t merely flip the opposite cheek in “Within the Warmth of the Night time” makes for the movie’s excessive level, particularly as Spike Lee, Quincy Jones and Freeman recall their reactions to probably the most satisfying slap in movie historical past.
The system tried to discredit Poitier at one level, citing his admiration of Paul Robeson as proof of communist inclinations — and Poitier overtly acknowledges his concern for civil rights and working-class points, which the federal government was actively making an attempt to handle across the time his profession was taking off (with roles like “Blackboard Jungle” and “A Raisin within the Solar”). The actor appealed to Black and white audiences alike, and by 1967, he was the nation’s largest field workplace draw, starring in “Within the Warmth of the Night time,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “To Sir, With Love” in the identical yr. However the nation was altering, and Poitier shares how a lot it damage that some African People noticed him as an Uncle Tom.
As a documentary, “Sidney” is clearly invested within the fantasy of Poitier’s legacy, however its willingness to confront this dimension of his id — as within the “magical Negro” gesture of leaping off the prepare to save lots of Tony Curtis’ character in “The Defiant Ones” (1958) — reveals that it’s not above being essential. Behind the digicam, Hudlin has graduated from populist “city” hits (“Home Get together,” “Boomerang”) to inspirational, Black-centric options (“Marshall,” “Security”), and “Sidney” suits together with his extra activist latest work. The movie isn’t groundbreaking, however its topic most definitely was, and Hudlin has the great sense to get out of the way in which and provides Poitier the highlight, which shines all of the brighter by the eyes of the abilities who adopted in his footsteps.