Sidney Poitier, who died in January at the age of 94, shouldn’t have been the only black leading man of his talent, appeal and stature in his Hollywood heyday, when he owned all the premieres. But with the civil rights struggle and his hard-won fame reinforcing each other, he sure damn showed what the solo version of such a pioneering great could do.
At one point in Sidney, Reginald Hudlin’s documentary about the seminal actor-activist-director-activist, we see him in a later interview admitting to feeling lonely at the top. The wealth of emotion that a moment hints at is something you wish was explored more fully in a bio-documentary about someone whose story-making implications are as complex as they come. But an Oprah Winfrey-produced film that celebrates the icon who has meant the most to her — and shows her collapsing on camera while saying it — probably isn’t the place for stricter viewing.
First, though, Poitier himself speaks to us through Hudlin’s camera, and it’s mesmerizing. His memories of being a Bahamian farm boy unfamiliar with cars or mirrors, first confronting American racism as a teenager in Miami and fighting against illiteracy and poverty were inducted into New York’s American Negro Theater to become are told with such speed, care and detail as he has become his younger, newly discovering self. We are reminded that the acting greats never seem to lose their storytelling power.
When Hollywood called (beginning with “No Way Out” in 1950), the dignity, strength, and charm of his roles excited black moviegoers while never threatening whites. Poitier still had to sacrifice his freedom to save a racist (“The Defiant Ones”) and help German nuns win a historic Oscar (“Lilies of the Field”), but he frequently broke through barriers when it came to performance on screen and the power off screen .
In his biggest film year, 1967, he memorably slapped a racist in the face in “In the Heat of the Night” — a moment rightly enjoyed on-screen interviewees Spike Lee, Morgan Freeman and Louis Gossett Jr. But a more militant black citizenry was already calling Poitier Uncle Tom, despite his notable and, we learn from one activist, personally damaging involvement in the civil rights movement. As Lee puts it, Poitier suffered the “snares and darts” that Denzel Washington didn’t suffer, but luckily he had the shoulders for it.
Although his tumultuous affair with Diahann Carroll (his “Paris Blues” co-star) is touched upon – including reminiscences of his first wife, Juanita Hardy – the bulk of coverage of Poitier’s family life is devoted to how he appreciated the example set by his parents. and how he committed himself to responsible fatherhood and evoked warm memories in all six daughters and widow Joanna.
Much of “Sidney” plays like an introduction to the Poitier class or a slick tribute to fans. However, the greatest hits approach sometimes disappoints when we know how artful and challenging non-fiction form can be since James Baldwin was brought to life in I Am Not Your Negro and the docu-series The Last Movie Stars aching revealed human Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Here, the rhythm of talking heads and archival footage are in respectful harmony, balancing spirited A-list greetings (including Washington, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand and Halle Berry) with cultural insights provided by writers Nelson George and the late Greg Tate Talk to the hoped-for and never-enough outlines in Poitier’s career, which has been the be-all and end-all when it mattered most as he hired mostly black crews to direct his projects.
There is certainly more to be gleaned from the life of this extraordinary, complicated trailblazer than a suitably gratifying love letter to his brilliance and bravery. The story of his lively, passionate friendship with Harry Belafonte — this film’s richest personal streak, spanning theater, politics, and movies (everybody hails “Buck and the Preacher”) — could be a documentary in its own right. So we hope that “Sidney” sparks deeper gazes rather than shielding life from further reflection. It’s a long time, after all, because while we’ve lost the man this year, his tremendous legacy of “carrying other people’s dreams” – as he once described it to Winfrey – will endure as long as few others can .
Rated: PG-13, for some language, including racial slurs, and some smoking
Duration: 1 hour, 46 minutes
To play: Starts set. 23, Lammle Royal, West LA; also available on Apple TV+
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-09-22/review-sidney-celebrates-poitiers-legacy-but-does-not-go-deep-enough ‘Sidney’ review: Slick tribute to Poitier disappoints