The late Sidney Poitier gets a revealing documentary in a two-hour film directed by Reginald Hudlin and produced by Oprah Winfrey.
Unfortunately I missed getting the opportunity to see Sidney during its Toronto premiere screenings. I had one screening on my schedule but one must listen to their body when it needs sleep. In any event, I finally had the chance to sit down and watch ahead of its release on Apple TV+. Leave it to the great Oprah Winfrey for getting me to cry when she cried!
Hudlin weaves together the actor’s final interviews and archival clips together with interviews with family and friends. Together, they paint a portrait of Poitier’s work not just as an actor and filmmaker but his work as a Civil Rights activist. For instance, I had no idea that he and Harry Belafonte had a falling out in the year’s following the late Dr. Martin Luther King’s tragic passing. Belafonte wanted to do some sort of rally after the funeral. However, Poitier thought it would be a distraction and they just didn’t talk with each other. This is the sort of insight that we’re getting while watching the film. Prior to the funeral, they both found themselves as the target of death threats. In any event, they came back together when Poitier directed Buck and the Preacher.
Hudlin is able to to let Sidney Poitier tell his own story. Thankfully, they were able to capture enough interview footage before the actor died in January. Prior to Hudlin’s own interviews with Poitier, Oprah already had some seven hours in the can. The pandemic may have impacted the film a bit but this documentary makes for a way to honor Poitier’s legacy.
Poitier went from living in poverty in the Bahamas to one of the most iconic actors. It was only after arriving in New York City and landing at the American Negro Theatre in which Poitier began to start down the acting path. As he started building up his screen career, he was always mindful of what he was representing. It’s not a coincidence that he chose to work on films about race relations in 1967. Beyond this, it’s fascinating to see his choices in the 1970s up against the rise of the Blaxploitation movies. How do Black audiences respond to his roles during the rise of Black Power? What about his fellow actors? How do they respond to the work that Poitier decided to make during the 1970s?
When one discusses Poitier’s filmography, his work in 1967 is a must for discussion. In the Heat of the Night features the slap heard around the world. Hudlin makes sure to include the clip and anecdotes from not just Poitier but Morgan Freeman, Spike Lee, etc. Another film about race in 1967 was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. While Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn aren’t around for commentary, Katharine Houghton discusses working with Sidney. The film itself is a masterclass in acting.
For the film to work, it must delve into topics otherwise considered taboo. This includes an affair with Diahann Carroll. Otherwise, it would be an incomplete film.
In winning the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Poitier broke new ground. It wasn’t just that he was the first Black man to win an Oscar for an acting performance. It’s because the performance represents a major change for how we see Black people on the screen. When Hattie McDaniel won for Gone with the Wind, she wasn’t even allowed in the room and her character was a slave. A few years before this win, the Academy nominated Poitier for his performance in The Defiant Ones. Cut to the 74th Academy Awards on March 24, 2002: Sidney Poitier receives the Academy Honorary Award and looks down to see Denzel Washington follow him in taking home the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Only five Black men have won an Oscar in the category.
The win would inspire a number of people, including Oprah Winfrey. What Poitier did was represent hope in the decades before Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. It’s something that we see time and time again while watching the film.
“In that moment, he became the great Black hope for me,” Winfrey comments in the film.
And again, Oprah cries when she discusses the time she met Sidney Poitier at a birthday party. When she started crying, I started crying.
Sidney is as much of a portrait as we can get within its nearly two-hour run time. For audiences not familiar with Sidney Poitier, this documentary works as a nice introduction to his filmography, who he was, and what he represented as a person.
DIRECTOR: Reginald Hudlin
SCREENWRITER: Jesse James Miller
FEATURING: Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Halle Berry, Reverend Willie Blue, Morgan Freeman, Nelson George, Louis Gossett Jr., Aram Goudsouzian, Juanita Hardy, Beverly Poitier-Henderson, Katharine Houghton, Quincy Jones, Lenny Kravitz, Spike Lee, Lulu, Anika Poitier, Joanna Shimkus Poitier, Pamela Poitier, Sherri Poitier, Sydney Poitier Heartsong, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Greg Tate, Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Ambassador Andrew Young
Apple TV will release Sidney on September 23, 2022. Grade: 4/5
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