“If there were equality of opportunity in this business there would be fifteen Sidney Poitiers and ten to twelve Harry Belafonte’s. But there is not.”
This fact is on the coronary heart of “Sidney,” Reginald Hudlin’s new documentary concerning the Hollywood star Sidney Poitier. A chronological recounting of Poitier’s odds-defying breakthrough into the traditional Hollywood system and turning into the primary Black actor to win the Greatest Actor Oscar, this Oprah Winfrey-produced documentary does a beautiful job of sustaining the parable of Poitier as a trailblazer actor, director, activist, husband, and father.
In a gorgeously filmed interview that can absolutely make followers of the late actor emotional, Poitier addresses the digital camera straight as he shares his origins on Cat Island in the Bahamas. Born two months early, his father was able to bury him in a shoebox, however, his mom sought out a soothsayer to guarantee her that her youngest son would have a vibrant future. This data that he was imagined to die earlier than he even lived pushed Poitier to reside his life with gusto. Poitier attributes every part he turned as a person to the inspiration laid by his dad and mom. His mom’s compassion and his father’s perception that the measure of a person is present in his means to maintain his kids.
Together with Poitier’s oral historical past of his personal childhood within the Bahamas, teenage years going through racism in Jim Crow Miami, and early days struggling to interrupt into the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, the documentary options speaking head model conversations with those that knew him and people who have been impressed by him. This consists of interviews together with his daughters, his ex-wife Juanita Hardy, his widow Joanna Shimkus, historian Nelson George, biographer Aram Goudsouzia, and actors Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry, and Denzel Washington.
Whereas it is refreshing to listen to Hardy and his daughters from his first marriage, the darker features of his nine-year affair together with his “Paris Blues” co-star Diahann Carroll are very sanitized, the implosion of which is simply addressed by Carroll via a brief archival clip. It’s disingenuous to not embody extra of Carroll’s viewpoint about their tempestuous relationship. Particularly when in comparison with the uncooked honesty with which Ethan Hawke’s latest documentary “The Last Movie Stars” explored the extra difficult features of fellow “Paris Blues” co-stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s affair, one which blew up two marriages earlier than ensuing of their long-lasting marriage.
“Sidney” does a tremendous job outlining Poitier’s breakthrough into mainstream Hollywood films and finally into megastar standing. Hudlin highlights the movies—and filmmakers—who have been courageous sufficient to incorporate an extra sensible presentation of a Black man than earlier a long time in Hollywood, beginning with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who handpicked Poitier to play a younger physician in his drama “No Way Out.” From there the doc navigates the methods by which Poitier’s roles in movies like “A Raisin In The Sun” and his Oscar-winning efficiency in “Lilies of the Field” paved a path for extra nuanced portrayals of Black life in mainstream Hollywood cinema.
Whereas the doc does discover the polarizing reception of Poitier inside the Black group, particularly in movies like “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” it does so solely fleetingly. James Baldwin, who wrote critically of each movie in his e-book The Satan Finds Work, is proven in an archival clip—however his phrases are by no means used, with Hudlin both assuming the viewer is conversant in how Baldwin criticized the works or doesn’t need these phrases to spoil his thesis that the movies have to be understood inside the context of once they have been launched. This ignores that Baldwin was criticizing them when they have been launched.
There’s additionally an absence of context across the different Black actors who did discover some work in Hollywood. Paul Robeson will get a point out, together with the adverse stereotypes portrayed by Mantan Moreland and Stepin Fetchit, however, there isn’t any point out of significant actors like James Edwards, Canada Lee, or Juano Hernandez. Nonetheless, the interviews with Freeman, Berry, and Washington express simply how deeply Poitier’s breakthrough as a star in a manner these others have been unable to help contextualize what made Poitier’s profession success such a watershed second for Black actors within the business.
The doc fares finest in its exploration of Poitier’s decades-long friendship with Harry Belafonte. The 2 met whereas working within the theater collectively, with Poitier getting his large break whereas filling in for Belafonte one evening when he was referred to as in for a final minute shift for his day job. Hudlin does a superb job chronicling their friendship via these early days within the theater their political work for civil rights within the Sixties to their collaboration collectively in Poitier’s directorial debut “Buck and the Preacher” in 1972. Archival clips of the 2 on speak reveal just that the “Dick Cavett Present” permits their deep admiration—and playful rivalry—to shine even a long time later.
Poitier’s influence as a director is briefly explored in distinction with the Blaxploitation period movies of a similar time. Barbra Streisand explains why she, Poitier, and Newman created the manufacturing firm First Artists so as to have extra management of their initiatives. Not solely did Poitier shine as a director of comedies, but he additionally made certain that working behind the scenes in his productions has been largely Black. However, once more, the doc shirks exploring the extra difficult features of Poitier’s directorial output. Particularly, the numerous movies he directed starring Bill Cosby.
“It’s difficult when you’re carrying other people’s dreams,” Poitier tells Oprah at her forty-second birthday celebration. Herein lies the problem of telling a person like Poitier’s story. Do you print the legend or do you delve deeper into the failings? It’s a balancing act for certain, and one which Hudlin doesn’t fairly pull off.
“Sidney” works extra as an explainer for why Sidney Poitier stays such a vital determinant in the American historical past—not simply Hollywood historical past—than it does as a warts-and-all biography of Sidney the person. It could be too quickly for that type of documentary about Poitier, whose influence looms giant over a Hollywood that also doesn’t have the fairness of alternative he opined some 50 years in the past.