What Telling Someone Else’s Story Can Teach You About Your Own Story
Director Reginald Hudlin explains what he learned about his own life from making a documentary celebrating the life of Sidney Poitier.
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.
#1 Don’t take no for an answer.
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.
#2 Honor your principles.
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.
#3 Failure is okay.
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.