Sidney (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A respectful tribute to Sidney Poitier

Documentary film “Sidney”, which was released on Apple TV+ in last month, looks into the life and career of late Sidney Poitier, who was one of a few major black Hollywood stars during his prime in the 1950-60s. Although it simply enumerates a number of key points in Poitier’s life and career one by one, the documentary still works as a respectful tribute on the whole, and it surely reminds us again of what an exceptional figure Poitier really was in many aspects.

During its early part, the documentary gives a succinct summary of Poitier’s early years. He was the youngest son of a poor black family in the Bahamas, and he tells us how fortunate he was right from the beginning. When he was prematurely born, it seemed that there was not much possibility of survival for him, so his father actually prepared for his death, but his mother did not give him up at all, and Poitier remained grateful to his parents’ eventual decision for the rest of his life.

In the middle of his following adolescent period in the 1940s, Poitier was sent to Miami in US for living with one of his older brothers, and that was when he came to have the first experiences of racism. In the Bahamas, his racial identity did not matter much as he was surrounded by many other black people living there, but it did matter a lot in US for the prevalent racial discrimination in the American society. His several painful experiences with those racist white folks eventually drove him to New York City, where he could be a lot more comfortable with his racial identity.

During his first days in New York City, Poitier just focused on earning his meager living day by day via a number of menial jobs which did not pay much, but then there came an unexpected life-changing moment for him. After noticing an advertisement in a local black newspaper, he decided to try on the audition held for a local black theater group, and, though the result was not that satisfying to say the least, he came to find that he really wanted to be an actor.

Once his goal was set, Poitier prepared himself a lot. He tried to read more in addition to learning how to speak well in English, and he subsequently made his debut on the stage while also befriending several other black artist figures such as Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte. As a matter of fact, he was Belafonte’s understudy at one point, and that accidentally gave him a chance to enter Hollywood when he had to appear on the stage instead of Belanfonte during one performance. After making his film debut via Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out” (1950), he appeared in several notable films including Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” (1958), which incidentally garnered him the first Oscar nomination, and his growing status in Hollywood was solidified further by the following critical/commercial success of Ralph Nelson’s “Lilies of the Field” (1963), which made him the first black Best Actor Oscar winner. 

Next several years was another high point in Poitier’s movie career. In 1967, he appeared in “To Sir, with Love” (1967), “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), and “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), and he became quite popular among not only black people but also white people in US. With his considerable talent and exemplary star presence, he surely changed the image of black people in American movies, and that is the main reason why he has been respected a lot by many black actors and actresses for years. 

In the meantime, Poitier was also well aware of the ongoing civil rights movements led by many black American figures including Martin Luther King Jr., and we hear about how active he was along with Belanfonte and a number of prominent black American figures during that turbulent period. On one day, he and Belanfonte came into Mississippi for a certain important mission, and they were surely reminded again of how things could be quite risky for them and other black people because of those deplorable racists in the South.

During the 1970s, Poitier saw the end of his clean-cut stardom due to many reasons including the rise of Blaxploitation films such as “Shaft” (1971), but then he found another opportunity via a little black western film “Buck and the Preacher”. When its original director was let go after the first week of the shooting, Belafonte, who happened to Poitier’s co-star, suggested that Poitier try to handle the shooting at least for a while, and, what do you know, it turned out that he was actually competent enough to satisfy those producers. After this successful directorial debut of his, Poitier directed several comedy films including “Stir Crazy” (1980), and I must point out that the documentary somehow overlooks that his directorial career unfortunately did not end that well with “Ghost Dad” (1989), which remains one of a few embarrassing things in his whole career even at present for many reasons besides its recently disgraced lead actor.

In my inconsequential opinion, “Sidney” could delve more into its main subject (Its presentation of Poitier’s private life feels rather shallow and perfunctory, for instance), but director Reginald Hudlin did a fairly good job of juggling archival and new interview clips on the whole, and you may also enjoy an impressive array of famous interviewees ranging from Halle Berry and Denzel Washington to Babra Streisand and Robert Redford. Above all, it is certainly poignant to watch Poitier himself frankly talking about his life and career not long before he died early in this year, and that compensates for the weak aspects of the documentary to some degree. He was indeed a great Hollywood actor besides being a decent man of principle and integrity, and he will surely be missed more than before.

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