‘Sidney’ is about the man, not just his milestones10/5/2022
The inspirational story of Sidney Poitier is retold in this warm and thoroughly engaging documentary from filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, featuring commentary from Oprah Winfrey (the film’s producer), Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Quincy Jones, cultural critic Nelson George — and Lulu, Poitier’s costar in “To Sir With Love.” Most importantly, no one is better at telling Sidney Poitier’s story than Sidney Poitier himself, and this film includes a marvelous direct-to-camera raconteur performance from Poitier, recorded before he died in January this year.
Having him tell his own story, largely via edited footage and voiceover from seven hours of interviews Winfrey conducted with Poitier in 2012, allows “Sidney” to be about the man, not just his milestones.
Poitier grew up in poverty in the Bahamas and has some wonderful anecdotes about his astonishment on visiting Nassau as a child and seeing a car for the first time — as well as a mirror, goggling at the duplication it created. On moving to Miami, he faced death threats and violence from the Ku Klux Klan, but moved to New York City, got a job as a dishwasher in a café where a kindly Jewish waiter helped him to learn to read, and he learned his sonorous voice from a white radio announcer.
From there, Poitier found work in the American Negro Theatre and got a breakthrough movie role in “Blackboard Jungle” as a smart high schooler. He was the Black convict chained to Tony Curtis’ white convict in “The Defiant Ones” as they made their break from a prison van, gradually coming to like the white man and creating a mythic self-sacrifice when he throws himself from a moving train rather than abandon him. (A gesture that still divides pundits even now. Nelson George talks about how Black audiences didn’t buy into the famous moment. He even suggests it’s a seminal moment in the history of the “Magical Negro” trope on film.) The slap he gave to a white man in “In The Heat of the Night” was a sensational moment. Poitier was upset to be later regarded as a safe “Uncle Tom” figure, but he kept working in the industry, transitioning to directing with resounding success.
The documentary does a good job showing just how astounding Poitier’s self-invention was, considering his early poverty. Hudlin tells us about some movies in Poitier’s repertoire that may have been forgotten like the interesting “Something of Value” from 1957, another Black/white pairing (this one with Rock Hudson), set in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau uprising. It is a far more confrontational film, with Poitier in a more brutal and less emollient role.
This documentary is a spirited rebuke to the “sellout” narrative that has been allowed to grow around his career and puts into immediate perspective what the world would’ve been like without Poitier’s influence.
Throughout “Sidney,” there’s an insistence in both Poitier and the interviewees that the film star truly believed he wasn’t defined solely by his skin color. He referred to his interest in civil rights as borne out of “the necessity to survive,” and Winfrey refers to him as a “race soldier who’s leading the army for everybody else.” This echoed belief stemmed from his struggle as a child to understand the racial divide. Callbacks to Poitier’s childhood are the backbone of the entire feature, which ends by drawing parallels with his close call with death in the beginning and with Poitier’s words: “I’ve really come a long way…When I die, I will not be afraid of having lived.” You really feel that sentiment throughout this documentary; Sidney encompasses everything he stood for when he was alive, and all of it are things that transcend more than just filmmaking and art — it’s history. ♦