Oprah Winfrey gets choked up and breaks down when remembering her inspiration, advisor and friend, the Black screen icon Sidney Poitier. No big surprise there.
But then you hear a little catch in the voice of Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, who doesn’t do sentiment unless he’s getting paid to fake it. And you take notice.
“I think of Sidney as this ‘big ass lighthouse,’ a bright light on a promontory,” Freeman says in the new documentary celebrating “Sidney.” “I spent my career focusing on that light.”
“Sidney” is instantly one of the great documentary love-ins in a year that has already produced “The Last Movie Stars,” focusing on Poitier’s contemporaries and one-time co-star, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Hollywood knows how to celebrate its own. And Reginald Hudlin, one of the legions of Black filmmakers (“House Party” to “Marshall”) who followed in actor, director and role model Poitier’s wake, more than does justice to a singular figure in Hollywood and American Civil Rights history.
Hudlin, with screenwriter Jesse James Miller and producer Oprah Winfrey, take us through a life of “firsts,” honors and praise as we hear from family, contemporaries, historians and those who followed Poitier through the show business doors that he opened in this warm, moving and pretty thorough accounting of his long life and career.
Poitier passed away earlier this year at the ripe old age of 94, one of the most honored and most beloved figures in Hollywood history. He sat for interviews for this film, reads from his autobiography and appears in clips from his many movies.
From “No Way Out,” playing a Black doctor treating a racist inmate (Richard Widmark) in a stunning debut, to “The Defiant Ones” and the Oscar-winning “Lilies of the Field,” on through “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” smoothly stepping away from the spotlight, then returning as an actor and director in the ’70s and ’80s, Poitier rarely made a wrong move and never lost the affection of an adoring public.
“The movies changed the day he hit the screen,” cultural critic Greg Tate says, without hyperbole.
The blow he struck a rich, white Southerner who’d just hit him became “the slap heard around the world,” thanks to “In the Heat of the Night.”
He was “the noble Negro of white liberal fantasies” during his “Sir Sidney” years — playing roles in white shirt and tie that let him “humanize and normalize blackness,” Oprah opines.
But as the film makes clear, it didn’t come easily. He grew up not knowing what indoor plumbing was in a house with no electricity on Cat Island in the Bahamas, got his first taste of racism when he moved to Miami as a teen, didn’t really become a good reader until he moved to New York and a waiter at a restaurant where he washed dishes helped him with that, and didn’t shake his accent until “I spent $14 on a radio” and started imitating the speech of 1940s newscaster Norman Brokenshire.
This was after he’d spent his first weeks in New York working as a porter or dishwasher, sleeping in a men’s room stall at a bus station, after he’d blown his first audition with Frederick O’Neal at the American Negro Theatre, Poitier says, his formidable memory never failing, right up to the end.
The film delights in detailing what daughter Sydney describes as the great “bromance” of his life, with acting contemporary, singer, the Jamaican/American Harry Belafonte. They met as rivals for roles in the New York theater of the ’40s, and carried on, as collaborators and best friends with sometimes long “falling outs, like a married couple” as Sydney puts it, all through their lives.
The rivalry/bromance made for great TV, as a funny “Dick Cavett Show” joint appearance reminds us.
“They kept playing that stink eye,” is how Morgan Freeman puts it. They once pulled it on me in a joint interview, warily sizing me up to see if I’d get the joke before starting in, vigorously and affectionately poking at each other. Belafonte never let Poitier forget that he owes his career to the night Harry got called into work as a New York garbage man, and his understudy in a play they were doing took the stage and Poitier was “discovered.”
We hear how Poitier chose roles based on his father’s sense of “the true measure of a man,” picking pictures that had “something of value” beyond a payday and simple entertainment.
And we revisit his human foibles, a married man who fell in love with Diahann Carroll making “Paris Blues,” perhaps caught up in what one critic calls “the most beautiful couple in screen history,” an affair that ended his first marriage and went on for years before he met and married a much younger white co-star, “the love of my life,” making “The Lost Man.”
Hudlin uses split screens to convey the bustle of the New York and Hollywood Poitier burst into in the ’40s and ’50s, and has historians and cultural critics provide the context for how Earth-shattering his rise to stardom was.
And Barbra Streisand, who with Newman and Poitier founded the First Artists film production company, brings it all back down to Earth.
“He was beautiful. What SMILE is like that? Maybe Brando’s? Come on!”
Robert Redford saw him as “a great example of what manhood should look like and feel like.”
His daughters from two marriages marvel at the efforts he went to in order to give them “one big happy family” childhoods, his ex-wife Juanita remembers the early years and her business advice that put him on a no-budget picture that won him and Oscar, and gave him profit participation that pretty much set him up for life — “Lilies of the Field.”
Poitier and Belafonte went to school on their forebear, the actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson’s experience of being red baited and blackballed. But when the civil rights movement was at its peak, they were down South, risking their necks to further the voter registration and equal justice cause. And they led Hollywood to join Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, joined by Brando and Lancaster, Garner and Heston in the audience at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
We hear about the down years, with Poitier labeled “a house Negro” and “Uncle Tom” for his films, which seemed made for white audiences (true enough) and designed to present an idealized Black man who could “normalize” the idea of an integrated America.
If “Sidney” has a failing, it’s in the way it mentions the years when Poitier went out of favor with the African American and avoids any connection of the Black audience reacting to his taking up with white woman as playing a part in that.
Denzel and Oprah fondly recall Poitier’s career advice, director Spike Lee remembers his defiance and civil rights activism and Lulu recalls the “very smart agent” who not only got her cast in “To Sir With Love,” but landed her the title tune, which she sings and chokes up as she recalls the message conveyed in that song.
That 1960s film, like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and “In the Heat of the Night,” were building blocks for white acceptance of a smart, principled and talented Black man who not only made movies, but shouldered the burden of “carrying other people’s dreams”
Hudlin’s embracing film reminds us that there was a lot of history that unfolded around this one man, and a lot of change came about thanks to this one extraordinary life of achievement and humility, grace and principled defiance.
Cast: Sidney Poitier, Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Halle Berry, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Nelson George, Juanita Hardy, Denzel Washington, Lulu, Louis Gossett Jr. and Morgan Freeman
Credits: Directed by Reginald Hudlin, scripted by Jesse James Miller. An Apple TV+ release.
Running time: 1:52