Reginald Hudlindocumentary about Sidney Poitier should be considered the beginning, not the end, of judging the prolific actor’s career. Sydneywhich premiered at TIFF and will stream on Apple TV+ starting Sept. 23, captures the kind of hagiographic portrait audiences have come to accept — even desire — of famous figures.
This useful introduction chronologically chronicles Poitier’s legacy, from his birth in 1972 to his death in January 2022. Early on, we learn that the actor’s life was not guaranteed. He was born two months premature and many people, including his mother’s midwife, predicted imminent death. The morning after Poitier was born, his father bought a shoebox to bury the child in. But Poitier’s mother possessed an abiding faith: She visited a fortune teller who told her not to worry about her son’s survival. Poitier would not live alone, but he would travel to different corners of the earth, he would be rich and famous and he would bear the name of his family all over the world.
It comes down to
An assured, if not defiant, intro to an imposing legacy.
Publication date: Friday September 23 (Apple TV+)
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Screenwriter: Jesse James Miller
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 51 minutes
The story, which Poitier tells halfway through the film, also acts as a metaphor for the actor’s legacy. He spent his life achieving the impossible: he became an actor, was commercially viable, and was the first black person to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Its rise in Hollywood — a historically nationalist, conservative, and racist industry — more than lived up to the fortuneteller’s predictions.
Poitier’s early years were marked by movement and discovery. He spent the first fifteen years of his life in the Bahamas, first on Cat Island and then in Nassau. Moving to the capital broadened Poitier’s understanding of the world – it was there that he remembered seeing a car for the first time and learning how reflections in mirrors work. Hudlin shoots the interviews in which Poitier talks about his upbringing up close, so that the actor’s face almost always floods the screen. This vantage point replicates the intimacy evoked in Poitier’s performances. When he asks “do you hear me?” after telling the story about the mirror, it feels like he is speaking to us, the viewers, on an individual level.
It is this presence that made Poitier a successful actor, although he didn’t start out that way. After 15 years in the Bahamas, Poitier moved to Miami. Before moving to the United States, Poitier did not think about what he looked like. “I just saw what I saw,” he says at one point. But spending time in Florida changed what he saw and how he processed it. He began to witness the violent relationship between race and power.
Poitier eventually moved to Harlem, where he took a job as a dishwasher and learned to read. He had never acted before, but after coming across an audition call in the… Amsterdam News, he tried. The audition went horribly, but Poitier, not one to be told no, decided to get better. He bought a radio so he could lose his accent by imitating Norman Brokenshire’s silky voice. He bought books and took classes, struggled through the rules while holding multiple service jobs. When he scored another audition and booked a part, theater became his therapy. “Acting gave me a space where I could be an exhibitionist, where I could vent my frustrations, where I could pour some of my confusion and other ills into a fictional character,” Poitier said in the document.
For Poitier, acting was a place of play, a way of inhabiting lives not available to him. Perhaps that was why his performances were so electric. Once Sydney moves past the biographical dump of the first half, it organizes Poitier’s life through his roles. From The Rebels and Lilies of the field until Guess who’s coming to eat and Buck and the PreacherHudlin uses Poitier’s filmography as a launching pad to discuss the actor’s craft, friendships, love affairs, and success.
Hudlin is no stranger to recreating the lives of giants. He directed the 2019 Netflix documentary about music director and producer Clarence Avant, The Black Godfather. In that movie, as in Sydney, Hudlin gathers a chorus of the subject’s family, friends and admirers. He arranges their testimonies in a rather conventional narrative model: a story of victory and then success. The messier aspects of one’s life are treated as marginalia.
In SydneyHudlin interviews Poitier’s children, his ex-wife Juanita Hardy, his friend Henry Belafonte and many others. Their stories anchor the film in the personal. Perspectives from the likes of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry and Spike Lee situate Poitier in a long legacy of black actors. Writers such as the late Greg Tate and Poitier’s historian Aram Goudsouzian add a necessary layer of cultural critique and context.
But no voice is louder or more passionate than that of Oprah Winfrey, who also made the documentary. She talks about the first time she met Poitier, how he shaped her for what was possible. When she talks about their first interaction, at a birthday party Quincy Jones is hosting for her, her voice trembles, hinting at the tears to come.
There are moments in Sydney who shook off the dutiful atmosphere of canonization to reach for a more complex portrait of Poitier. In these parts of the document, Hudlin deals with Poitier’s affair with his… Paris Blues co-star Diahann Carroll; his struggle to maintain his integrity; his painful separation from Hardy; and the tumultuous friendship with Belafonte, with whom he often competed for roles. The Poitier emerging from this glimpse is a man who takes on the responsibilities of representation as he tries to fathom his own life; not only are they the strongest parts of the doc, they also feel like the most honest.