Reginald Hudlin’s documentary about Sidney Poitier should be considered the beginning, not the end, of appraising the prolific actor’s career. Sidney, which premiered at TIFF and streams on Apple TV+ starting on Sept. 23, crafts the kind of hagiographic portrait audiences have come to accept — even desire — of famous figures.
This serviceable primer chronologically recounts Poitier’s legacy, from his birth in 1972 to his death in January 2022. Early on, we learn that life was not guaranteed for the actor. He was born two months premature and many people, including his mother’s midwife, predicted an imminent death. The morning after Poitier’s birth, his father procured a shoebox in which to bury the infant. But Poitier’s mother possessed an enduring faith: She visited a soothsayer who told her not to worry about her son’s survival. Not only would Poitier live, but he would travel to different corners of the Earth, he would be rich and famous and he would carry his family’s name all over the world.
The Bottom Line
An assured, if unchallenging, intro to an imposing legacy.
Release date: Friday, Sept. 23 (Apple TV+)
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Screenwriter: Jesse James Miller
1 hour 51 minutes
The story, which Poitier recounts halfway through the film, doubles as a metaphor for the actor’s legacy. He spent his life achieving the impossible: He became an actor, was commercially viable and was the first Black person to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. His ascendance in Hollywood — an historically nationalistic, conservative and racist industry — more than fulfilled the soothsayer’s predictions.
Poitier’s early years were marked by movement and discovery. He spent the first fifteen years of his life in the Bahamas, first in Cat Island and then in Nassau. Moving to the capital broadened Poitier’s understanding of the world — it was there that he remembers seeing a car for the first time and learned how reflections in mirrors work. Hudlin shoots the interviews in which Poitier talks about his upbringing close up, so that the actor’s face almost always engulfs the screen. This vantage point replicates the intimacy conjured in Poitier’s performances. When he asks “do you hear me?” after telling the story about the mirror, it feels as though he is speaking to us, the viewers, on an individual level.
It’s this presence that made Poitier a successful actor, although he didn’t start out that way. After 15 years in the Bahamas, Poitier moved to Miami. Before relocating to the United States, Poitier did not consider what he looked like. “I just saw what I saw,” he says at one point. But spending time in Florida changed what he saw and how he processed it. He began to witness the violent relationship between race and power.
Poitier eventually moved to Harlem, where he took a job as a dishwasher and learned how to read. He had never acted before but after coming across an audition call in the Amsterdam News, he tried his hand at it. The audition went terribly, but Poitier, not one to be told no, resolved to get better. He purchased a radio so that he could lose his accent by mimicking Norman Brokenshire’s silky voice. He bought books and took classes, struggling through lines as he worked multiple service jobs. When he scored another audition and booked a role, theater became his therapy. “Acting offered me an area where I could be an exhibitionist, where I could give vent to some of my frustrations, where I could pour out some of my confusion and other ills into a fictitious character,” Poitier says in the doc.
For Poitier, acting was a site of play, a way to inhabit lives unavailable to him. Perhaps that’s why his performances were so electric. Once Sidney moves past the biographical dump of the first half, it organizes Poitier’s life through his roles. From The Defiant Ones and Lilies of the Field to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Buck and the Preacher, Hudlin uses Poitier’s filmography as a launchpad to discuss the actor’s craft, friendships, love affairs and success.
Hudlin is no stranger to reconstructing the lives of giants. He directed the 2019 Netflix documentary about the music executive and producer Clarence Avant, The Black Godfather. In that film, as in Sidney, Hudlin gathers a chorus of the subject’s family, friends and admirers. He arranges their testimonies to fit a rather conventional narrative mold: a story of overcoming and then success. The messier aspects of a person’s life are treated as marginalia.
In Sidney, Hudlin interviews Poitier’s children, his ex-wife Juanita Hardy, his friend Henry Belafonte and many others. Their stories anchor the film in the personal. Perspectives from the likes of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry and Spike Lee situate Poitier within a long legacy of Black actors. Writers like the late Greg Tate and Poitier’s historian Aram Goudsouzian add a necessary layer of cultural criticism and context.
But no voice rings louder or more passionately than that of Oprah Winfrey, who also produced the documentary. She speaks of the first time she encountered Poitier, how he shaped her sense of what was possible. When she talks about their first interaction, at a birthday party thrown for her by Quincy Jones, her voice shakes, hinting at the tears to come.
There are moments in Sidney that shake off the dutiful air of canonization to reach for a more complex portrait of Poitier. In these parts of the doc, Hudlin tackles Poitier’s affair with his Paris Blues co-star Diahann Carroll; his struggles to maintain his integrity; his painful divorce from Hardy; and the tumultuous friendship with Belafonte, with whom he often competed for roles. The Poitier that emerges from these glimpses is a man shouldering the responsibilities of representation while trying to figure out his own life; they’re not just the strongest parts of the doc, they feel like the most honest, too.