In a certain, traditional sense, he was our first black cinema star. Before Sidney Poitier achieved fame, other Black performers had been in well-known Hollywood productions and even made it as far as to get an Academy Award for their efforts (although only once, in 1939, and for Hattie McDaniel). Before Sidney Poitier arrived in the United States from the Bahamas in 1942, other Black image-makers had toiled in other facets of the business, acting in front of and behind the camera. Due to segregation, there were Black movie producers and directors. There was also a long history of vaudeville, which featured notable international performers like Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, as well as a thriving minstrel circuit. These factors overlapped and significantly influenced the careers of many Black actors who were trying to break into the theatre and film industries. Even some of these artists earned substantial sums of money.
However, that history is overshadowed by an extraordinary year in Sidney Poitier's career, 1967, when the actor starred, with top billing, in three significant, hugely successful Hollywood releases: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy; To Sir, With Love; and In the Heat of the Night, which won Best Picture the following year. These films weren't Poitier's first commercial successes or his first encounters with the most illustrious members of upper Hollywood elite. For instance, Blackboard Jungle achieved worldwide acclaim in 1955, and Poitier had previously won an iconic Oscar for his work in Lilies of the Field. What makes 1967's record-breaking trio unique is that Poitier served as both the lead and the draw, making him the main reason why so many people, both Black and white, were ready to purchase tickets.
A mere three years have passed since the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. Exactly one year before Martin Luther King, Jr. In a turbulent, unsettling time, Poitier was something that everyone could agree on. Of course, not everyone — not, for example, the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan members who pursued Poitier and Harry Belafonte during a crucial trip undertaken on behalf of Southern activists; nor, most likely, the McCarthy thugs who attempted to use Poitier's admiration for the illustrious Robeson, a brave supporter of socialist movements abroad, against him. It's untrue to say that everyone supported Sidney Poitier.
The new documentary by Reginald Hudlin on the lives and times of the actor Sidney does not make a contrary argument. (Apple+ is currently streaming the movie.) However, a film of this type, a career and life retrospective, would usually focus on Poitier's unquestionable capacity to rise above such conflicts. In this way, it is a documentary that is inspired by Poitier, who did not focus on the bad guys even though he took them seriously. And he was capable of that! Because, well, look at him now: It appears that his fame has outlasted the stupidity.
Sidney has the advantage of being able to feature a living subject, even though it is being released after the actor's passing in January 2022. Poitier conducted his own interviews, and the movie also includes narration from his autobiography. The list of attendees is also long. There are the Oscar-winning Black actors (Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Louis Gossett Jr., and Halle Berry) whose careers were made more feasible by Poitier's advancements, as well as other legendary Black entertainers (Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Lenny Kravitz, Spike Lee), as well as white contemporaries (Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand), many of whom speak about Poitier on a The late Greg Tate, Nelson George, and Aram Goudsouzian, as well as members of Poitier's family, activists who supported him during the civil rights movement, and, based on archival interviews, Belafonte, Poitier's closest friend and ally, all weigh in.
The outcome is about in line with what you could anticipate from an actor whose narrative is, in reality, weirder and more vivid than mythology might allow: It can't always get its hands dirty, but it's still good. We are still in 1968 one hour and a half into the two hours of the film, quickly moving through social history that has ever been intertwined with personal history. That is the understandable drawback of Sidney, which is ultimately an effort to regard Poitier's career with honour, acknowledging the flaws and controversies while taking care to incorporate them into the story. For example, Juanita Hardy, Poitier's first wife, describes the moment she confronted him about his affair with Diahann Carroll.
Because Sidney Poitier was a symbol and sought to conduct his life in accordance with that knowledge, it is challenging to make a documentary about his life. Simply said, life itself is the cause of the increased difficulty: It's just too fascinating. It has too many connections. Using Poitier as your central case, you could tell a complete narrative about the fates of Black stage and film performers of the 20th century. You could cover everything from minstrelsy to Harlem's American Negro Theater (where Poitier first gained notoriety after moving to New York as a teenager), to Hollywood and social activism, to the complicated, contingent politics of Black movie stardom spanning from Hattie to Sidney to Blaxploitation onward — all tale When Poitier arrived in America at the age of 14, he attracted the attention of the Klan by entering a white person's home through the front door, all because he had no idea what it meant for a Black citizen to be considered in any way inferior. Poitier had grown up on Cat Island and in Nassau, where the majority of people were Black. That is an American idea. Poitier did not grow up with American conceptions, as he would often emphasise when reliving these incidents over the years.
All of the following are mentioned in Sidney, which essentially moves across time, but not in great detail. Why could it? That doesn't entirely excuse how little Hudlin's documentary discusses movies like 1969's The Lost Man, in which Poitier attempts to face his reputation as a too-placid symbol who was out of touch with the Black political fervour of the time while playing a militant Black activist. The film is only mentioned as a transition into Poitier's relationship with co-star and future wife Joanna Shimkus; otherwise, you wouldn't know what a curiosity this movie was, which is unfortunate given that the majority of people are unaware that it even exists. Additionally, the steady stream of advancement into which Sidney wrestles the actor's life could use a few more roadblocks like this, moments that feel more like open-ended historical uncertainties than neat historical certainties.
Sydney serves as a memorial or introductory lesson. These issues are greater than, and generally beyond, this movie. They include more in-depth inquiries about Poitier's "meaning," the absurdity of his position, and the way it served as a yardstick for evaluating Black politics over many decades. They also happen to be some of the most important inquiries we can make concerning Poitier's professional life. "The master's tools will never wreck the master's house," declared Audre Lorde. To claim that Poitier's legacy was evidence of this or that it wasn't would be too simple. The truth is much more nuanced. This film cannot capture that reality.