If you are lucky, you will live a good life. The days and years of your story will be filled with more triumphs than trials. Perhaps you will even have some successes, but most importantly, there will be love and peace. However, some people get a little bit more than that, which will reward and cost them simultaneously.
Sidney Poitier was a giant, but as the late actor relays to the audience in Reginald Hudlin’s Sidney opens, he was never supposed to live. Born two months premature on a tiny island in the Bahamas to tomato farmers, the Academy Award winner had little more than a third-grade education when he stepped off a boat in Miami at age 15.
Though he could barely read, what he did have, was a sense of self.
Growing up in an all-Black country afforded him the space and opportunity to understand his manhood and personhood outside of the context of the white gaze or under the terror of Jim Crow. Though America, with its deep-seated anti-Blackness, would force him to adjust, he would never bend or yield. Poitier’s sense of purpose and, of course, his towering regal beauty helped earn him the role of the first Black movie star. But in some ways, achieving such heights was also a weight.
Cinema lovers already know much of Poitier's story.
After all, the movies would not be what they are for any of us if it weren’t for him. His career shifted the landscape for Black people in America, and after moving into directing, he worked diligently to employ countless Black people behind the camera. The entire timeline of Poitier’s life is present in Hudlin’s film. Yet, the highlights of Sidney are explosive points that shifted his perspective and forced him to confront himself. In addition to Poitier’s own accounts, Hudlin weaves in archival footage and accounts from Oprah Winfrey (who also served as an executive producer), Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, and Poitier’s daughters, among others. The style of the documentary isn’t revolutionary. However, Potier’s life was so miraculous that gimmicks or extremely stylized shots weren’t needed.
While Poitier's magnetism has always been acknowledged, Hudlin is careful to also talk about the public opinion toward the actor -- especially that of the Black community -- at the height of his career.
As the Civil Rights Movement gave way to Black Power, many Black people felt Poitier had been playing “magical Negros.” The Defiant Ones and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? were some of his most controversial roles. He was not always revered in the way that we see him now.
These challenging career moments aren't the only parts of Poitier's life examined in the film.
Hudlin also addresses intimate aspects of his personal life, including a painful rift with his lifelong friend, Harry Belafonte. The Raisin In the Sun actor also discusses his love affair with the legendary Diahann Carroll— a relationship that ended his first marriage. He recounts the push and pull of the relationship and the repercussions it had on his family and himself. As Hudlin illustrates and Poitier says himself, perfection was never the goal, but staying aligned with his moral compass was, even if he did at times, falter.
Summing up the life of someone as monumental as Sidney Poitier seems like an impossible task. But in using the late actor’s accounts of his own life, Sidney is one of those rare beautiful documentaries about a life well lived, the human spirit, and what’s possible if you’re determined to get after it.
Sidney premiered on Sept. 11, 2022 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will debut Sept. 23 in theaters and on Apple TV.