Apple TV’s new documentary “Sidney” examines the life and legacy of the first Black Hollywood superstar: Sidney Poitier. Director Reginald Hudlin joins Jonathan Capehart live on set.Comment + Permalink
Apple’s Original Film, “SIDNEY” is now available on Apple TV+. The film is a revealing documentary that honors the legendary Sidney Poitier and his legacy as an iconic actor, filmmaker and activist at the center of Hollywood and the Civil Rights Movement. Sidney is produced by Oprah Winfrey and directed by Academy Award nominee Reginald Hudlin.Comment + Permalink
Since the release of Apple TV+’s Sidney—an Oprah-produced documentary about Sidney Poitier’s remarkable life, impact, and legacy—director Reginald Hudlin’s inbox has been inundated with both praise and enthusiasm for the thorough telling of the Academy Award-winning actor, filmmaker, and activist’s story. In theaters and streaming now on Apple TV+, Sidney features candid interviews with Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Barbra Streisand, and Spike Lee, as well as Poitier’s very own daughters Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, Gina, Anika, and Sydney.
Over a year in the making, Hudlin naturally traveled down many rabbit holes while exploring Poitier’s life for the documentary, but he says he learned just as much as about himself throughout the filmmaking process. “Making the movie really made me realize that Sidney played an integral part in my life,” Hudlin tells Oprah Daily. “Because I grew up seeing his movies my whole life, I just kind of took it for granted that he defined manhood to me. The intelligence, the integrity, the courage, the elegance—that was the measuring stick of what to aspire toward.”
Ahead, in his own words, Hudlin shares three more lessons he learned while bringing Poitier’s story to the big screen.
Sidney’s parents didn’t have much in terms of material resources. They didn’t have running water. They didn’t have electricity. They didn’t have a formal education, but they gave him love, a sense of hard work and drive, a sense of moral compass. They gave him everything he needed to conquer the world. So when we think about what we have and what we don’t have, and what we can and can’t give someone, don’t get it twisted in terms of focusing too much on material values.
When I first started, being a Black filmmaker was very difficult. The presumption among every studio was that there was no market for Black films, and no one wanted to see it. Every day was a battle, so I was used to being in combat mode. One day my wife goes, “You’re presuming too much about people’s hostility to what you’re trying to do. You don’t know what’s going to happen. So why don’t you try it anyway?” That shift in mentality was important. Over the course of my own career, I have seen so many barriers fall, and I’ve seen my part in knocking those barriers down. I feel more optimistic than ever, and looking at Sidney’s career, he never lost that same sense of positivity.
Sidney only accepted roles of Black men who were dignified, diplomatic, and ethical. He took on roles that felt authentic to him. One of the breakthroughs I had while making this film was that my greatest successes are when I’m being a hundred percent myself. My successes come from doing what I believe in and what I’m passionate about. When I deviate from that, things don’t work out, and I go, “Okay, well that’s it.” So it makes sticking to your principle very easy.
It’s rare to have a second and third act in life, but Sidney did exactly that when he began producing and directing his own films. I try to challenge myself and challenge others to try new things but, most importantly, be willing to be bad at them. When we’re children, we try everything. We hit a baseball, we play the piano, we draw a picture, right? Then, when we get a little older, we figure out what we’re good at, and we stop doing things we’re not so good at. Just the act of learning and stepping outside your comfort zone expands your consciousness and your confidence and can make a real difference, and sometimes you might surprise yourself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.Comment + Permalink
Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin still remembers meeting Sidney Poitier at a Hollywood party in the late 1980s.
Hudlin, then in his twenties, had yet to produce or direct a movie, though he had made some shorts. He was at the party with his older brother, Warrington, also a filmmaker, and their father, a teacher.
“And Sidney Poitier was at the party,” Hudlin recalls. “So I said: Dad, I’m going to introduce you to Sidney Poitier.” He found the superstar, and brought him face to face with his father
“And Sidney looks at my father and he says: Look at you. You’re more handsome than me. You’re richer than me. And you have these sons. I hate you.”
He was kidding of course. Hudlin’s dad floated away in a happy daze. “And it blew me away! I said: Wow, that’s a star. That’s how you do it. Right? Not only is he generous with his time but in, I dunno, two minutes he made a moment that I would never, ever forget.”
Hudlin continues: “So when I got the opportunity to make this movie, I said: Well, I owe him just for that alone. Forget everything else he’s done. I have to do this.”
This movie is simply called Sidney. Produced by Oprah Winfrey, directed by Hudlin and featuring interviews with Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Robert Redford, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Barbra Streisand and more, it explores the life and work of the actor, producer and director who died this year at the age of 94.
Sidney had its world premiere Sept. 10 at Roy Thomson Hall as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, with two additional screenings before streaming on AppleTV+.
The interviews that make up much of the film were shot over a two-year period, with a central sit-down with Poitier himself filmed years before that, but never seen until now. “I was not expected to live,” Poitier says dramatically at the outset, describing his premature birth to poor tomato farmers, and his early childhood years on tiny Cat Island in the Bahamas.
When he moved to New York City in 1943 he found his first acting jobs through the American Negro Theatre Company. But it was in motion pictures that he gained his greatest fame, beginning with a role in 1950’s No Way Out as a doctor who is blamed by a white man for the death of his brother, who had been wounded during an attempted robbery.
In 1959 Poitier became the first Black man to be nominated for best actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for The Defiant Ones. In 1964 he was the first Black man to win that prize, for Lilies of the Field, and the only one until Denzel Washington won for Training Day, 38 years later.
Hudlin certainly counts himself as a fan, but it goes deeper than that. “Sidney Poitier was integral to my entire life,” he says. “I mean, he was not just an actor and a filmmaker. He was the definition of manhood. Besides my father, he was what you’re supposed to be. You’re supposed to be strong and intelligent and moral and courageous. And he represented all those things through the years.”
Hudlin remember being 10 years old when Buck and the Preacher came out in 1972 — “old enough to go to the movies by myself,” at least in those days. It was Poitier’s directing debut, a western in which he also starred opposite his lifelong friend Harry Belafonte.
“So I took the bus downtown in St. Louis and saw the movie. I think I probably stayed all day, and just watched it over and over again. And it was the opening weekend and they had posters. I remember getting a Buck and the Preacher poster and being very proud of that.”
Poitier may have made great inroads as a Black leading man when such a thing was almost unheard of, but not everyone was a fan. An op-ed by Clifford Mason in The New York Times in 1967 captured the mood of some Black academics and filmgoers who felt that Poitier was sticking too much to a noble character that white audiences could easily root for. Some used the term Uncle Tom. Mason called him a showcase n-word.
The movie doesn’t shy away from this controversy. And neither does Hudlin. But he notes that Poitier helped fuel a revolution in Black thinking and Black pride that couldn’t help but overtake him. It’s tough to stay at the forefront forever.
“The moment that he created through his work was so big and was happening so fast that by the time he’s making Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (in 1967) it had gone to another place. But it was because of him. And I think that’s the perspective that we get looking at things historically.”
It was a shift he’s certain Poitier himself understood even as it was happening. “And that’s the kind of amazing foresight that is such an integral part of who he was. How did this guy with no role models — nothing like him ever existed before –— how did he know the right thing to do? How did he always make the right choice at every turn for such a long period?”
Hudlin thinks he knows the answer. He’s probably known since that long-ago meeting between his father and his hero. “He was empathetic and sensitive and he just knew where things were. He read the room. And he adjusted, you know, once he realized he didn’t have to carry everybody on his back, then he could switch and he could play an Everyman like he did in Uptown Saturday Night. Because he didn’t have to be a Superman all the time.”
Sidney debuted on the AppleTV+ streaming service on Sept. 23.Comment + Permalink
Sidney Director Reginald Hudlin says Sidney Poitier is someone to look up to in this special screening interview. Check it out.Comment + Permalink
The brilliance of Reginald Hudlin’s documentary for Apple TV+ is that it lets him do just that. An incredibly gifted storyteller, Poitier, who died at age 94 in January 2022, opens “Sidney” by saying in voiceover, “I was not expected to live.”
Of course we know that Poitier, who was born two months premature, his life hanging by a thread, did live, and lived exceptionally well, touching so many other lives with his groundbreaking Hollywood career. Having him tell his own story, largely via edited footage and voiceover from seven hours of interviews the film’s producer Oprah Winfrey conducted with Poitier in 2012, allows “Sidney” to be about the man, not just his milestones.
Many of the stories Poitier relates he’s told before in his books, especially his great 2000 memoir “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography.” How, growing up without electricity on Cat Island in the Bahamas, he didn’t even see a car, or a mirror, until several years into his childhood. How, growing up in an environment in which he was surrounded by Black people, he didn’t think anything of the color of his skin. And how that all changed when he moved to the U.S. in his teens.
As powerful as those stories are on the page, they come to life that much more in his voiceover and direct-to-camera accounts in “Sidney.” Winfrey interviewed Poitier against a gray-black backdrop, with the camera zooming in at pivotal moments until his chin and the crown of his head touch the edges of the frame. Even then in his mid-80s, not having acted in more than a decade, he retained both his charisma and his commanding presence.
To both charm and lead: that’s what Poitier was able to pull off. There certainly had been powerful Black presences on screen before Poitier — Hudlin especially acknowledges Paul Robeson in the film — but there had not been a Black male lead in Hollywood who had two of the top 10 highest grossing films of a given year, as Poitier achieved in 1967 with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “To Sir, with Love,” along with starring in that year’s best picture winner, “In the Heat of the Night.” After having become the first Black best actor winner (for “Lilies of the Field”) several years earlier, no less.
He had charmed audiences. Moviegoers handed over their money in droves to see him. As 1968 dawned, he was the industry’s number one box-office draw. But he also would lead — by being selective in the roles he chose so that he did not reinforce the stereotypes about Black lives that Hollywood had so often peddled. He eventually ended up behind the camera, populating the crews of the movies he directed with Black below-the-line talent, but even when he was just acting he brought a perspective and storytelling lens to interpreting his characters that anticipates him becoming a director.
What audiences did he charm, though? “His movies were not made for Black people,” says the late cultural critic Greg Tate at one point in the film. “Sidney” argues that his movies were trailblazing for acclimating white people to the humanity of Black people, a kind of cinematic desegregation that represented baby steps into a more diverse future. Yes, there’s Barbra Streisand, Spike Lee, Lenny Kravitz, Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Winfrey herself appearing on-camera to sing Poitier’s praises, but Tate and a few other critics add a little more dimension.
Nelson George talks about how Black audiences didn’t buy into the famous moment of escaped convict Poitier jumping off the train to help Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones,” thus turning his back on his own freedom. He even suggests it’s a seminal moment in the history of the “Magical Negro” trope on film. A great montage set to James Brown and featuring clips from “Soul Train” and blaxploitation movies shows how quickly Black culture moved on from Poitier after his ’67 peak.
Poitier himself talks about his reaction to a New York Times article that asked “Why Do White Audiences Love Sidney Poitier So?” (Winfrey delivers one of the most moving moments in “Sidney” when she candidly says she could relate to this because of accusations that her talk show — or she herself — “wasn’t Black enough.”) His friend Harry Belafonte, with whom he fell out and reconnected several times over, implicitly criticizes the actor several times. And the film doesn’t shy away from telling the story of Poitier’s first wife Juanita Hardy, a Columbia graduate while he only had a grade-school education, and how their marriage ended because of his affair with the actress Diahann Carroll.
If there is some truth to the charge that his characters were overly perfect in order to be safe for white liberal audiences, Poitier himself does not come across as perfect here. Which only allows his humanity to reveal itself all the more. Likewise, his work behind the camera, for films like “Buck and the Preacher” and “Stir Crazy,” was not aesthetically groundbreaking (George flat out says “he’s not a great visual stylist”), but his work didn’t have to be revolutionary because he was revolutionary.
In “Sidney,” Hudlin has opted for a similar approach to Poitier’s own filmmaking: he’s not looking to shake up the documentary form, but the space he gives Poitier to tell his own story, and the compelling, cliche-free interviews with the “talking heads” on hand (95 percent of all the material here was filmed before his death), are so powerful that no extra intrusion of style is necessary.
Hudlin also knows how to tell a story. He’s directed the comedies “House Party,” “Boomerang,” and “The Great White Hype,” as well as the biopic “Marshall,” served as president of BET, and has had a side career writing graphic novels. His appearance on a 2016 ABC special called “Marvel’s Captain America: 75 Heroic Years” showed the range of his interests and the energy with which he can talk about them on-camera himself: “Why is he falling out a plane? I don’t know, just roll with it!” he shouted at one point, talking about a favorite panel of comic art. That enthusiasm for storytelling is all over “Sidney” as well. And so is a trust, on Hudlin’s behalf, that no extraordinary gimmicks are needed to give this story extra pop.
“Sidney” isn’t an encyclopedic account nor a film-by-film one. Your favorite Poitier movie may not even be featured (whither “The Slender Thread”?). It also sidesteps some problematic missteps (Preminger’s “Porgy and Bess” movie). But it makes you recognize, through the force of its telling, why the story of Poitier’s life matters. And will matter forever.
“Sidney” is now streaming on AppleTV+.Comment + Permalink
Director Reginald Hudlin’s “Sidney” was made with the full and keenly interested cooperation of the Poitier family, following a template of access many documentaries favor or, in some cases, settle for.
This is one of the good ones. Its format limitations (a stand-alone feature, under two hours) and the personnel involved lead, perhaps inevitably, to more of a classy overview of a singular breakthrough artist than a deeper examination of Poitier’s impact. Plainly, the man deserves something of the breadth of the six-hour HBO series on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. But with Poitier’s death earlier this year, at 94, “Sidney” serves as both a timely remembrance and a reminder of how stardom intersects with the world, sometimes, and what Poitier did to keep his sanity in the face of uniquely burdensome expectations.
Oprah Winfrey produced the documentary, along with Derik Murray, and Winfrey’s 2012 interview footage with Poitier (just him alone on camera) provides the throughline. Straight to the lens, in that unforgettable, gently Bahamanian cadence, Poitier recalls his early years on Cat Island in the Bahamas. Race was not a concept, or a threat, to young Sidney, until he left Nassau (where he saw his first mirror, his first car) for Miami, at his father’s arrangement, at age 15. Poitier was born in Miami during his parents’ visit; two months premature, he was not expected to live.
As a teenager on the mainland in Florida, he lived with his brother and worked various jobs including department store bike delivery. How this gig led to a chilling encounter with the Ku Klux Klan put Poitier on notice: America was not built with his interests or his humanity in mind.
He got to New York in 1943, by Greyhound, where he floundered in his first audition with the American Negro Theatre. Years later, he got in, having worked methodically, carefully, on adopting a kind of “acceptable” American stage dialect. This is where he met longtime friend and sometime rival Harry Belafonte; when Belafonte couldn’t perform one night in a Broadway production (his day job intervened), understudy Poitier went on, and a Hollywood agent in the audience that night lit the fuse of Poitier’s career.
In the 2012 interview footage in “Sidney,” Poitier is a spellbinder, pure and simple. He speaks of his pre-stardom days, with his family back in the Bahamas, waiting for a letter (and some financial support) from their ambitious son. “I cut home off,” he says at one point. “I didn’t write because I couldn’t put anything in the envelope.”
He made a huge impact in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s tough, forward-looking drama “No Way Out,” and he had the guts not to take a role, five years later, in “The Phenix City Story” because his character was given zero screen time to react to the murder of his little girl (that same year he appeared in “Blackboard Jungle”). Later, he made sure the unscripted slap in a key scene in “In the Heat of the Night” made it into the picture. That made history, and changed things, in a second.
A decade earlier, “The Defiant Ones” (1958) also made history: The first Black actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for a leading role, the one chained to fellow nominee Tony Curtis. It was also, as writer Nelson George says in “Sidney,” a dubious “magic Negro moment,” a film in which Poitier’s character sacrifices his own freedom to stick with his newly enlightened white friend.
This is the complicated legacy of Poitier, cemented in his biggest decade of stardom, the 1960s: He made movies for white people, many of those films still vital, others (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”) cringy and stodgy. Yet even that, for many, including Winfrey, Halle Berry and others, meant progress at a particularly volatile moment in America.
Gingerly, “Sidney” deals with Poitier’s affair with “Paris Blues” co-star Diahann Carroll, and on camera Poitier’s first wife, Juanita Hardy, looks down and away when quietly addressing the matter of what Poitier was using his separate apartment for besides writing projects. His second, 46-year marriage to Joanna Shimkus lasted until Poitier’s death. She too is in the documentary, while film luminaries from Denzel Washington to Spike Lee to Robert Redford pop in to praise the actor, civil rights activist, director and north star they knew.
“I truly, truly try to be better tomorrow than I was today,” Poitier says at one point, straight to the camera, speaking from the past (the 2012 interviews) but to the future. “A better human being. Not a better actor. Just a better human being.”Comment + Permalink
Oprah Winfrey, director Reginald Hudlin and three of Sidney Poitier’s daughters sit down with “CBS Mornings” co-host Gayle King to talk about a new revealing documentary, “Sidney.” They reflect on Poitier’s impact on their personal lives and honor his legacy as an iconic actor and filmmaker.Comment + Permalink
Sheinelle Jones sits down with Oprah Winfrey, Reginald Hudlin, Beverly Poitier-Henderson, Sherri Poitier and Anika Poitier to discuss the work, life and legacy of Sidney Poitier, as captured in the documentary “Sidney.”Comment + Permalink