/ 22 October 2022

One Film, Two Takes: Sidney

To Sidney, with love: The Oprah Winfrey-produced documentary is a collaboration with his family and honours the first black man to ever win an Academy Award (for Lilies of the Field, in 1964).

‘It can become very difficult to remain in touch with all that nourishes you when you have arrived at Poitier’s eminence and are in the interesting, delicate and terrifying position of being part of a system that you know you have to change,” wrote James Baldwin in Look in 1968 about the late actor Sidney Poitier. The Oprah Winfrey-produced documentary Sidney, directed by Reginald Hudlin, is streaming on Apple TV+. 

Running at just under two hours, the film uses, to indisputable effect, commentary from those closely tied to Poitier who have a  thorough understanding of his work, such as actors Halle Berry and Denzel Washington  and cultural commentators Nelson George and Greg Tate. But what makes the film a true gem is Sidney’s presence and that of his family — his daughters, his former wife Juanita Hardy and widow Joanna Shimkus. 

The director relies on an expertly curated archive to relay a chronological account of Poitier’s life, from his birth in the Bahamas to a list of firsts — the first time he went to town and encountered cars and mirrors; the first time he went to America and experienced racism; the first time he went to New York where his tree kept growing until he became the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar in 1964 for Lilies of the Field (1963).

As his star kept rising, so did the disaffection of black America about his allegiances, and the liberal white media’s wish to make him a voice for the black populace. The latter led him to retort at a press conference: “I am an artist, man, American, contemporary. I am an awful lot of things, so I wish you would pay me the respect due.”

He was a larger-than-life figure; a man who took a position, stood by it, and suffered publicly and privately for it. While the extent of the private repercussions of his choices might never be known, the public expectation to fulfil two clashing roles — one as an all-American man living the American dream, the other as an activist fighting for the rights of black people — weighed heavily on him. 

Poitier carried the hopes and expectations of an entire race. In his own words: “According to a certain taste, I was an Uncle Tom, even a house negro, for playing roles that were non-threatening to white audiences, for playing the noble negro who fulfils white liberal fantasies.”

Sidney is a love letter to a man who walked a tightrope. While the documentary briefly mentions his extra-marital affairs and his struggle to reconcile superstardom with the values his parents gave him, it’s mostly a tribute to a life well lived, given the circumstances of the time. Poitier tried his best to change a system and succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination. How he went about it is up for debate.

— Tseliso Monaheng

Sidney is director Reginald Hudlin’s respectful documentary honouring the life and career of the actor who changed the game for black talent in Hollywood. Made in close collaboration with the Poitier family, the film manages to avoid hagiography in 

its recollection of the barriers overcome by the actor in his quest for roles with scope and agency.

Born to Bahamian tomato farmers, Poitier grew up with no inkling of electricity, automobiles, mirrors, and most poignantly, racism. It was only when he moved to Miami, Florida, as a young man that America tried to convince him he was not who he thought he was. 

An incident which stayed with him till his death at 94 is told with calm and resignation. Poitier describes an encounter with police who put a gun to his forehead and made him walk back to a black neighbourhood because he was out late at night. He was told he would face death if he looked back at the squad car trailing him. That he lived to tell the tale is proof he did not.

Neither did the young man look back to his homeland in a period in which he was made literate by a waiter, refined his English accent by mimicking a radio presenter and failed at auditions. The guilt of his selfish pursuits away from the parents he revered affected him but not enough to diminish his ambition.

America was opening up in the 1960s —McCarthyism was on the wane, civil rights were gaining traction and the white middle class was amenable to a black leading man. Before Poitier became a genre unto himself, black roles were characterised by buffoonery. As the lone black figure in white Hollywood, Poitier’s grace and Shakespearian bearing countered the clownish expectations white audiences had of black actors.

No good deed goes unpunished, though, as Poitier had to fend off accusations of selling out due to his mainstream appeal to white America. He was not militant enough for some, who wanted to take the fight to whitey in the heady days of the civil rights era. 

To others, Poitier was an ambassador for this movement in his selection of roles that never cast a downward eye. His retaliatory slap of Endicott in In the Heat of the Night sent black audiences into rapture as they had never witnessed righteous black aggression on the screen before. Only Poitier’s clout carried off that amendment to the script without pushback from Hollywood.

For his fierce adherence to his principles, Poitier credits his parents. He chokes up when telling how he measured every role he selected against the shadow of his father. 

Poitier is contrite and forthright about his infidelity. As a provider and emotionally available parent to his daughters, though, his legacy cannot be questioned, as all six attest to in Sidney.

— Lumumba Mthembu