Often it is almost impossible to have a genuine conversation about a venerable figure in the midst of today’s Stan culture – and even frustratingly discouraged at times. That’s especially true of older black icons who paved the way for those who came after them, and whose less comfortable truths are often brushed aside out of respect.
But director Reginald Hudlin’s “Sidney,” which explores the life and career of the deceased Sydney PoitierShe actually has these conversations. She does so fearlessly and openly. And it encompasses a multitude of equally respected heroes of black cinema who are forced to reckon with the full portrait of Poitier, a man who aspired and inspired as well as frustrated and disappointed.
We rarely really talk about that last part. “Sidney” begs us anyway.
It’s also a funny thing, because for many of us, when it was announced that there would be a documentary about Poitier, a few questions immediately came to mind: Will it be his affair with “Porgy and Bess” co-star Diahann Carroll, who, like him, was married at the time?
will confront it the uncle tom dialogue that emerged during the blaxploitation era, which made far fewer compromises in depicting blackness on screen? The answer to both of these questions is yes, and thankfully so.
It’s not about sensationalizing or smearing the reputation of a man who opened the doors of opportunity for black people in Hollywood and encouraged his contemporaries to champion civil rights with figures like Martin Luther King Jr. Rather, it’s about honoring his humanity — in every facet of it.
Hudlin is more than equipped for the job. After all, he launched his career on the heels of Poitier, who deliberately directed behind-the-camera films by and for black people like A Piece of the Action, Let’s Do It Again, and Uptown Saturday Night in the ’70s.
Known for directing black classics like “Boomerang” and “House Party” in the ’90s, Hudlin is probably familiar with the quiet expectation of making compromises in a system that normally only celebrates you by sticking to its rules.
Hudlin also has the benefit of hindsight when telling the story of “Sidney.” He’s been in the game for 30 years and has relevant insight into the Hollywood system today. But he also understands with compassion as it was for actors like Poitier years before.
That’s why so many passages in “Sidney” seem so honest and empathetic, while at the same time being questioning and sobering. Hudlin certainly does more than his due diligence, amassing the full breadth of Poitier’s life growing up poor in the Bahamas through interviews with the actor as well as archival footage of Poitier reflecting his experiences.
He eventually pulled himself up on his boots, moved to Harlem and capitalized on his immense talent. There, as a young black actor in unforgiving white spaces, he faced and sort of overcame a whole new set of challenges.
While Poitier earned his spurs by performing in black spaces like the American Negro Theater, it wasn’t until white Hollywood took notice that he was immortalized. That’s a fact that prompts a lingering question in Sydney as to where black actors belong in the zeitgeist once they’re adored by whites.
In interviews with some white contemporaries of Poitier one finds no answer. Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford unequivocally admire him in the film for who he was and who he was trying to be. But you might be able to find your own answer by watching some of the clips Hudlin digs up in the film.
Poitier being interviewed by a white male journalist in a scene from archival footage— always a white journalist then – just as his career is beginning, about how he got his start. The interviewer brings up the fact that Poitier was asked to ditch his “bad native accent” in order to get more work. And how did the actor remedy the situation? He revealed to the interviewer that he taught himself by imitating a white man he saw on screen.
It is a short battle of words between two men, which nobody would have noticed at the time because it was expected. But if we look back at it now in the story of “Sidney,” it says a lot about the landscape through which Poitier earned his success – and even, perhaps unconsciously, at times sustained it.
“Sidney” also finds Poitier’s descendants who perhaps honor him the most, such as Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman and Spike Lee, who both wrestle with the complexities of his career and adore him at the same time. Because, as we all too often forget, both things can be done at the same time.
Harry Belafonte, one of Poitier’s longest friends who has often teamed up with him in the fight for racial justice, doesn’t mince his words when discussing their playful professional rivalry (Poitier’s career exploded the night he was an understudy on the stage stepped for Belafonte).
The two were often poised for the same roles, but more importantly, they disagreed on several political issues, sometimes resulting in their not speaking to each other for years. Belafonte is also open about turning down Poitier’s role in The Defiant Ones because his character, an escaped convict, is helping his white, racist fellow inmate (Tony Curtis).
In response, Denzel Washington points to something that doesn’t often go unnoticed in these types of conversations: opportunity. While Poitier spoke up for many things and was very open about issues like racism and other injustices in and out of Hollywood, he was also a married father of two with financial commitments.
Not everyone, as Washington says, has multiple forms of income to bring home. While Poitier was sizzling in Hollywood, Belafonte was also making money on the stage.”Dayo-ing.”
But Poitier was well aware of these conversations about him and his film choices. He still stood behind his decisions, but also acknowledged the points people had made about them. His serious answer was to start a black production company in the ’70s.
But when, how, and if to take on the role of the black image on screen—especially in its time—was more difficult to maneuver.
The question of compromise might be asked of any of the black luminaries Hudlin spoke to on “Sidney” — and, worth it, they’ve all faced questions about navigating whiteness in Hollywood. Winfrey has even openly acknowledged, as have some Black audiences turned against her for catering to white audiences on her hit, self-titled TV show.
It helped connect the two characters. There’s a moment where we see a clearly emotional Winfrey, who like Hudlin is a producer on “Sidney,” bursts into tears over her love for Poitier as the camera fixes her for several seconds.
What is most clear at this moment, however, is how these questions of how and for whom blackness manifests itself in largely white spaces remain as relevant today as ever. Something even needs to be said about the fact that Poitier was a black sex symbol supported and adored by many black women, but he left both his first wife and eventually Carroll to marry a white woman.
Amazingly, “Sidney” doesn’t even acknowledge this aspect of his personal and romantic life. In a film that explores every other complicated issue surrounding Poitier and the world in which he thrived, this omission by Hudlin and screenwriter Jesse James Miller seems odd.
It’s particularly peculiar when you look at it in terms of length History of Black Men Choosing White Romantic Partners after gaining success in white spaces.
Whether Poitier loved his widow Joanna Shimkus is beyond question. Both she and her children, as well as Poitier’s children with his first wife Juanita Hardy, are all interviewed in the film and praise his relationship with each of them (referring to the fact that Poitier cheated on Hardy with Carroll, which was understandably devastating to them ).
They say he also encouraged his children to have relationships with one another and his multiracial children to understand their identities. Still, that’s the one area of the film that doesn’t feel complete.
But when “Sidney” rises, which it mostly does, it’s a perfectly satisfying portrayal of a man who’s given us so much within the confines of a system that, over time, has set new rules for his unprecedented success, and the complex way in which he reacted to it.
“Sidney” doesn’t bother to simplify details surrounding Poitier’s biography, nor does it attempt to complicate his story. Rather, it honors the very real complexity of his life.
“Sidney” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released September 23 on Apple TV Plus.