SIDNEY: a moving tribute putting a revolutionary actor in front of the mirror

When he passed away on January 6, 2022, I mourned the loss of Sidney Poitier. I have sought to commemorate his life and career in the best possible way by rediscovering his films and delving into his interviews.

One of the conversations made me appreciate his relationship with Oprah Winfrey was a snippet from 2000 when he went on his show to promote his “Measure of The Man” biography. It’s not the only occasion, but from here you see a lot of the connective tissue leading up to sydney.

The new documentary was produced by Winfrey and directed by Reginald Hudlin. Although it was conceived before his death – with a slew of interviews from Poitier, his family and many friends and cultural luminaries – it unwittingly became an ode to one of the greatest figures in American cinema.

As I gathered my own understanding of Poitier, there are several shared feelings strongly reflected in the documentary. Poitier did not grow up with the dichotomies of North and South or segregated black and white society. His most formative years were spent first on Cat Island and then on Nassau in the Bahamas. Here he spent time among the local black community with only a handful of white people, and the ideas of systemic subjugation or oppression never crossed his mind.

In one of his most illuminating memories, Mr. Poitier thinks: “I didn’t know what a mirror was. So the only standards he could judge himself by were the traits his parents had instilled in him. This identity had nothing to do with the color of the skin. He was above all a human being.

The Legend of Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier arrived in Florida at age 15 with an innate sense of himself, and the world tried to tell him he wasn’t who he thought he was. We hear about how he was fired from his first job as a department store delivery boy because he had the nerve to bring a package to a white woman’s front door (without using the servant’s entrance) . He was new to this whole question of race in America, but it showed the utter absurdity and danger that came with such a society. On the same day, his family was visited by the KKK for his faux pas.

Poitier now has a career built on the auspices of legend, and it is a joy to have many of them told at length. He had his first experience with the subway in Harlem “taking the A train” immortalized by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.

source: AppleTV+

There is mention of the anonymous Jewish waiter who went through the newspaper with the young Poitier every evening so that he could slowly improve his reading comprehension. He was kicked out of an audition for the American Negro Theater by the theater giant Frederick O’Neal and slowly cultivated his diction while listening Norman Brokenshire on the radio. He also performed as an understudy for another part-time actor and janitor named Harry Belafonte!

In one way or another, each of these memories has a providential quality as they seem to have galvanized the young actor into what he would become for a generation of moviegoers.

Facing turbulent times

One thing I had never fully considered was how tangentially Poitier became involved during the tumult of the McCarthy era. He grew up on the New York scene, which has always been a more progressive space than Hollywood and one of the few creative beacons for him was Paul Robson, a strong and eloquent voice that has also become one of the main targets of witch hunts. Even at a young age, Poitier’s principles made him unfazed by this potentially disastrous association.

Another revelation came with the account of Belafonte and Poitier’s harrowing trip to Mississippi in 1964. They tell parts of it to Dick Cavett about how they agreed to bring money to the suffrage activist in the South. There’s so much background to appreciate, but they knew the danger their fame brought and faced fierce intimidation from a cavalcade of KKK members that escalated into a late-night car chase. .

It feels worthy of a movie in itself, and one of the key players was Reverend Willie Blue. He feels like a remarkable eyewitness to have for another piece of lore in the annals of Poitiers history. Obviously, the actors arrived at their destination successfully and Blue tells how the ground up to the treetops was full of people singing “Amen”, the song of field lily. Indeed, it was as if their saviors had arrived. It’s enough to give you goosebumps.

Hagiography is always a danger when documentaries are faked about people we know or love. There is an aspect to this with sydneybut I appreciate the time taken to consider some of the personal struggles as well.

After the devastating assassination of Martin Luther King jr., there was a schism between Poitier and Belafonte, who both had stubborn views on how they should react. As men with a strong sense of personal conscience, this separated them for a time, but their shared experience was insurmountable. Eventually, they reunited on screen to Buck and the preacher.

SIDNEY: a moving tribute putting a revolutionary actor in front of the mirror
source: AppleTV+

Poitier was also married to Joanna Shimkus for nearly 50 years after playing together in The lost man. However, he once married Juanita Hardyin a marriage partially exacerbated by his tumultuous and passionate relationship with Diahann Carroll. If Poitier’s life was measured against the values ​​of his parents, this infidelity was undoubtedly felt as a stain on his guiding ideals. However, what often makes heroes easier to understand are the moments when they show their flaws.

sydney: Conclusion

For novices and Poitiers acolytes alike, I think there is much to appreciate in this timely tribute. I was a little wary about involving Winfrey so closely, because it would be easy to make it a story that focused solely on their mentoring relationship. However, it seems much larger and more generous to seek to accept the extent of his life.

The title designs introducing his movies are pared down and for the uninitiated who aren’t totally squeamish about black and white, I can see the clips pique more curiosity. And talking heads enlist just about anyone you’d like to testify to his character. The only living person I could think of that was missing was Judy Geson of To sir, with love (and we got Lulu).

One of the final questions we need to ask ourselves is where does Poitier’s legacy leave us in the present? At first he was a forerunner, covering ground few others had trod. Then it was lambasted for being unhip and too appetizing in a generation looking for a revolutionary new kind of self-expression.

However, on a more practical level, as Poitier’s career evolved, what I remember most is how he empowered black people behind the camera. The industry often talks about the narrative surrounding the Denzel Washington and the Halle Berry who followed in his footsteps on camera. Yet he also left behind a job as a director and no doubt laid the foundation for many other careers in the industry, including Winfrey’s. It’s part of its imperceptible impact that I hadn’t even thought of before.

More often than not, people are defined by their most salient characteristics: this may be their name, appearance or vocation. Poitier somehow seemed to quietly dismiss it all on his path to success.

He mentions when he looked at the screen that it wasn’t his name – it was really his father’s name that was up there. It was up to him to honor it. And from his youth he was imbued with his own sense of self-esteem. Again, he literally had no mirror to shape his identity. One way or another, these have informed his career.

When he stands tall and proud in In the heat of the Night or tries to explain to his father, why he sees himself as a man in Guess who’s coming to dinner, all this reflects the deep convictions of Poitiers. Because although he made a living as an actor with a career that left an immeasurable impact on many of us (including this viewer), his life’s purpose was to be a better human being. – not a better actor.

Yes, he was flawed, but he did a lot of good. Everything else seems to have been added to it. He may not agree, but I’m glad his life was put in front of the mirror. I can think of no greater tribute to him than enjoying his movies together. Because at their best, they elevate the dignity of human beings – a dignity he always seemed to want to exemplify.

Do you have a favorite Sidney Poitier movie? What do you think is his legacy today? Let us know in the comments below!

Sidney was released on AppleTV+ on September 23.

Watch Sydney

Are you interested in content like this?

Become a member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry’s great articles. Join a community of like-minded, movie-loving readers – access our network of private members, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.

Join now!