Sidney Review

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In 2009, Sidney Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When this happened, Barack Obama said that he “invented milestones not movies.” He was always a talented actor — beautiful, charismatic and good at picking roles — but he was also a civil rights leader and cultural touchstone who became an advocate for change in a time that changed very quickly.

That’s the dichotomy Reginald Hudlin’s film, which is extremely watchable despite being fairly straightforward and hagiographic in its approach, strives to understand: the career as actor, producer and director, and the unquantifiable civil rights legacy that left behind. An impressive parade of talking heads — Denzel Washington is here; Spike Lee is here; Robert Redford is here; Barbra Streisand is here; Halle Berry is here; Morgan Freeman is here — line up to tell the story. But it’s most fascinating to hear from the man himself, interviewed shortly before his death in January.

As you might expect, Poitier proves to be an excellent storyteller. His voice has grown gentle with age — quieting down even more so than usual this time around because his health was failing when these interviews were conducted — but it still retains its commanding canyons-of-the-San-Joaquin mellow tone: an accent that he says in the film was self-taught by listening to radio announcers talk. Born two months premature into poverty on Cat Island to tomato farmers who had moved there from East Street South (an afro-Bahamian couple so humble they probably literally didn’t know they had a last name), he spins charming tales about growing up blacker-than-night with parents who had never seen electricity or running water.

Much more significantly, though: He remembers seeing his own reflection for the first time. “I didn’t know what a mirror was,” he says carefully, looking straight down the barrel. “Do you hear me?” he asks, rhetorically. It puts his radical career in context: Growing up in a black-majority Caribbean nation, American-style racism was an entirely foreign concept to him, and so were his youthful encounters with the Ku Klux Klan and sundry other deeply uncharitable organizations.

Hudlin’s film takes a straightforward linear approach to telling that story, using lots of archive clips and talking-head interviews to get us there. There aren’t many surprises if you know the story. But it’s such a big life — in movies, but also just generally; the guy was nearly our ambassador to Japan for crying out loud — that no frills are necessary. Poitier was a leading man at a time when that wasn’t really allowed; black actors were only allowed to do comic relief roles that wound up being more discriminatory than anything else anyway. As this movie dutifully points out, Poitier never played subservient characters on purpose and always looked for roles where he had power and agency. His work educated white audiences, thrilled Black ones and literally changed the game.

The film is “made in close collaboration with the Poitier family,” which tends to mean only good things about how accurate everything we’re seeing might be portrayed — but obviously raises concerns about what it is we’re not seeing at all. And while Hudlin doesn’t shy away from some of the low points here — Diahann Carroll is interviewed over Zoom from her deathbed, basically; Harry Belafonte gives what appears to be his first interview ever about their relationship; people still seem pissed that Sidney didn’t respond in 1970 when they felt like he should have said something about whatever it was they thought needed saying back then (the word “Uncle Tom” comes up) — it doesn’t exactly take an investigative journalist to see where all this might be going.

The movie finally arrives at a conclusion that is hard to escape: Poitier was a great actor all right, but he was also an excellent director (Stir Crazy still stands as the highest-grossing comedy ever made by a black filmmaker), a genuine history maker and basically decent guy. There’s a line in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner which one of the talking heads, Oprah Winfrey (who also executive produced) singles out. It’s a line that she says sums up Sidney Poitier: “You think of yourself as a colored man,” Poitier says in the film. “I think of myself as a man.”

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