“I believe that my life has had more than a few wonderful, indescribable turns,” the legendary Sidney Poitier states at the beginning of Reginald Hudlin’s documentary on his life, career, and accomplishments, Sidney. For anyone who knows of Poitier’s work, this seems like an understatement, and a fact that one probably knows if they’re familiar with Poitier. For such a groundbreaking actor, Sidney is a fairly by the book documentary, exploring Poitier’s history chronologically, hitting on every major landmark that any good Poitier documentary should explore. Yet despite this straightforward structure, Sidney succeeds simply because Poitier has such a captivating history—especially when his story is directly told from the late actor.
Poitier begins his own story by explaining that he wasn’t supposed to live, that he was born two months premature, and his father was planning on burying his son soon after he came into the world. While Poitier never directly says this, Sidney shows a life lived as if every minute alive is precious. From his early childhood in the Bahamas, where he wasn’t aware of cars, electricity, or mirrors, to making his way through a horrifying run-in with the KKK in Florida, and finally finding his newly discovered dream of becoming an actor in New York City, arguably the most engaging parts of Sidney are when Poitier dives into his history that isn’t as well-known, exploring his young life and the harrowing journey he had to take to become one of the biggest actors in the world.
From the very beginning of Poitier’s acting career, he shows integrity in the roles he chose and faithfulness to his values. Despite having to work as a dishwasher while acting in his earliest films, Poitier refused to do films that didn’t uphold beliefs he felt he should show on the screen. But after his breakthrough role in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, Poitier’s star seemed to rise with no end in sight, becoming one of the most important actors of the late 1950s and 1960s. In 1963, he would become the first Black actor to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards for Lillies of the Field, and the first Black actor since Hattie McDaniel to win an Oscar in an acting category. From there, Poitier would star in some of the most defining films of the decade, including In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, followed by an impressive career as a director, before stepping away from the limelight.
Sidney manages to not ignore the more questionable parts of Poitier’s life and people’s viewpoint of him at the time. Hudlin explores Poitier’s affair with Diahann Carroll, his divorce, and the Black viewpoint that Poitier’s choice in roles made him an “Uncle Tom.” Yet Hudlin mentions these parts of Poitier’s life more because it would be a flagrant mistake to wholly ignore the negative and just focus on the positive—and these moments are fairly passive in the larger picture.
Yet it is interesting to see the reaction to Poitier’s decisions at certain times. In particular, Sidney explores the wonderful friendship between Poitier and Harry Belafonte, and the choices that would sever this bond here and there. Sidney is also fascinating when it has different stars reckoning with Poitier’s roles and importance. For example, when discussing The Defiant Ones, Morgan Freeman looks at the still-debated choice in the film for Poitier’s character to risk his freedom to save the character played by Tony Curtis. Freeman points out that it’s a dumb move, but if he were in the same boat, he’d probably make the same choice. It’s this type of dissection of Poitier’s work that Sidney could use just a little more of.
Sidney’s lineup of interview subjects is also quite impressive, as Poitier’s family is questioned about his relationships and what his career meant to him at the time, while Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Lenny Kravitz, and Halle Berry all remark on his he paved the way forward. In one particularly moving moment near the end of the film, Winfrey bursts into tears simply because Poitier means so much to her. When we see Washington talk about his Oscar win, as Poitier looms above the stage having won an honorary Oscar that same night, Washington states that everything he does is in the shadow of Poitier, a man who truly made the world a better place through his contributions and his work.
But despite these impressive names, the most intriguing of them all is Poitier. While Poitier died earlier this year, Sidney is at its best when Poitier is telling his own story directly to the audience, and because of that, this feels like a key piece in understanding the momentous man’s work. While that is a great gift that Sidney gives us, it’s also a shame that Sidney spends so much time on the periods of his life that we know, and not on the periods that are less well-documented. Poitier’s early life is truly incredible, but Sidney also quickly moves past Poitier’s life after leaving show business, as he shifted from directing comedies like Stir Crazy to having a private life with his family. It’s in these moments that it would be wonderful to hear Poitier discuss these lesser-known periods of his life, but Sidney mostly plays to the parts that we already know.
And yet, even though Sidney takes a fairly elementary look at Poitier’s career, it’s still extraordinary to see the contributions this man had on the world lined up in this way. Poitier left an indelible change on entertainment, the culture, and society at large, and Sidney makes us aware that this world wouldn’t be the same without Poitier.