‘Sidney’ tackles the not-so-comfortable conversations about a black cinema icon

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Often it is almost impossible to have a real conversation about a venerable figure in today’s stan culture – and even frustratingly discouraged at times. That’s especially true when it comes to older black icons who paved the way for those who came after them, and whose less comfortable truths are often brushed aside out of respect.

But director Reginald Hudlin’s ‘Sidney’, which chronicles the life and career of the late… Sidney Poitier, actually has those conversations. It does so fearlessly and candidly. And it features a variety of equally respected heroes of black cinema who have been forced to reckon with the full portrait of Poitier, a man who both aspired and inspired, just as he frustrated and disappointed.

We rarely really talk about the latter. “Sidney” begs us anyway.

It’s also funny, because for many of us when it was announced that a documentary on Poitier was coming, a few questions immediately came to mind: Will it include his affair with “Porgy and Bess” co-star Diahann Carroll who, like him, was married at the time?

Will it confront? the uncle tom dialogue that emerged during the blaxploitation era that was much less compromising about how Blackness was portrayed on screen? The answer to both questions is yes and luckily too.

Sidney Pitier (right) in the 1958 film “The Defiant Ones” along with actor Tony Curtis (left).

Photo by Film Publicity Archive/United Archives via Getty Images

It’s not about sensationalizing or tarnishing the reputation of a man who burst open the doors of opportunity for black people in Hollywood and encouraged his contemporaries to advocate for civil rights with figures like Martin Luther King Jr. Rather, it is about honoring his humanity – every facet of it.

Hudlin is more than equipped for the job. After all, he started his career on the heels of Poitier, who deliberately went behind the camera to direct films by and for black people such as “A Piece of the Action”, “Let’s Do It Again” and “Uptown Saturday Night” in the ‘ 70s.

Hudlin also has the benefit of retrospection when telling the story of ‘Sidney’. He has 30 years of experience in the game and has relevant insight into today’s Hollywood system. But he also understands with compassion what it was like years ago for actors like Poitier.

That’s why so many passages in “Sidney” feel so honest and empathetic, while also being questioning and sobering. Hudlin certainly goes beyond his due diligence by amassing the full scope of Poitier’s life growing up poor in the Bahamas through interviews with the actor and archival footage of Poitier reflecting his experiences.

Poitier in his home away from home, the theater, in a still from "Sydney"
Poitier at his home away from home, the theater, in a still from “Sidney”

Courtesy of Apple TV Plus

In the end, he pulled himself up to his boots, moved to Harlem and bet on his immense talent. That’s what he stood for and in a way overcame a whole host of new challenges as a young black thespian in relentlessly white spaces.

While Poitier made his mark performing in black spaces like the American Negro Theater, it wasn’t until white Hollywood found himself becoming immortal. That’s a fact that catalyzes a lingering question in “Sidney” about where in the zeitgeist black actors belong once they receive white worship.

An answer cannot be found in interviews with some of Poitier’s white contemporaries. Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford unequivocally admire him in the film for who he was and who he tried to be. But maybe you can come up with your own answer to that by watching some clips Hudlin digs up in the movie.

Poitier is interviewed by a white male journalist in an archive footage scene: always a white journalist at the time – just as his career is taking off on how he got his start. The interviewer brings up the fact that Poitier was asked to get rid of his “bad native accent was “bad” to get more work. And how did the actor solve it? He revealed to the interviewer that he taught himself by a white person to imitate the man he saw on the screen.

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It’s a brief exchange between two men who probably wouldn’t have hit anyone at the time because it was expected. But when I look back on it now in the story of “Sidney,” it says a lot about the landscape Poitier earned his success with — and how he even, perhaps unconsciously, sometimes maintained it.

Poitier at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.
Poitier at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.

Photo by Gilbert TOURTE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“Sidney” also finds Poitier’s descendants, those who could most honor him such as Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman and Spike Lee, who struggle with the complexities of his career and also revere him. Because, as we all too often forget, both things can be done at once.

Harry Belafonte, one of Poitier’s closest friends, who often worked with him in the fight for racial justice, doesn’t mince words when he talks about their playful professional rivalry (Poitier’s career exploded the night he understudy on stage stepped for Belafonte).

The two were often up for the same roles but, more importantly, they disagreed on different political issues, sometimes resulting in them not speaking to each other for years. Belafonte is also open about turning down the role of Poitier in “The Defiant Ones” because his character, an escaped convict, helps his white, racist fellow inmate (Tony Curtis).

In response, Denzel Washington points to something not often recognized in these kinds of conversations: opportunity. While Poitier stood up for many things and was very candid about issues of racism and other injustices in and outside Hollywood, he was also a married father of two with financial obligations.

Not everyone, as Washington says, has multiple forms of income to take home. While Poitier was busy in Hollywood, Belafonte also made money on stage,”Dayo-ing.”

Harry Belafonte (left) and Sidney Poitier attend Nelson Mandela's first annual "Bridge to freedom" Awards at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.
Harry Belafonte (left) and Sidney Poitier attend the first annual Nelson Mandela “Bridge to Freedom” Awards at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.

Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

But when, how and whether to confront the role of the black image on the screen – especially during its time – was trickier to maneuver.

The question of compromise can be raised with any of the black celebrities Hudlin spoke to in “Sidney” — and for what it’s worth, they’ve all dealt with questions of navigating whiteness in Hollywood. Winfrey even openly acknowledged how some Black audiences turned against her for what they saw as catering to white audiences on her popular, self-titled TV show.

It’s what helped bond the two figures. There’s a moment when we see a visibly emotional Winfrey, who like Hudlin is a producer of ‘Sidney’, tearful over her love for Poitier as the camera fixes on her for a few seconds.

What’s most apparent right now, though, is how these questions about how Blackness appears, and who, in largely white spaces, are still relevant today. There is even something to be said for the fact that Poitier was a black sex symbol, supported and adored by many black women, yet he left both his first wife and, eventually, Carroll to marry a white woman.

Actor Sidney Poitier and actress Diahann Carroll attend the 36th Academy Awards in Santa Monica, California.
Actor Sidney Poitier and actress Diahann Carroll attend the 36th Academy Awards in Santa Monica, California.

Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“Sidney,” baffling, doesn’t even acknowledge this aspect of his personal and romantic life. In a film that explores every other complicated subject surrounding Poitier and the world he thrived in, this omission of Hudlin and screenwriter Jesse James Miller seems odd.

It’s especially quirky when you think about it in terms of the long history of black men choosing white romantic partners after achieving success in white spaces.

There is certainly no doubt that Poitier loved his widow Joanna Shimkus. Both she and their children, as well as Poitier’s children with first wife Juanita Hardy, are all interviewed in the film and speak highly of his relationship with each of them (regarding the fact that Poitier cheated on Hardy with Carroll, which understandably devastated her. ).

They say he also encouraged his children to form relationships with each other, and his biracial children to understand their identities. Still, that’s the only part of the movie that doesn’t feel complete.

But when “Sidney” rises, which it usually does, it’s an absolutely satisfying portrait of a man who has given us so much within the confines of a system that made up new rules for his unprecedented success as he went along, and the complex ways to which he responded.

“Sidney” doesn’t bother to simplify details about Poitier’s biography, nor does it try to complicate his story. Rather, it honors the very real complexity of the life he led.

“Sidney” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released on Apple TV Plus on September 23.