Movie stars know how to put on a show. The biggest stars make a living by practically gift-wrapping roles audiences want to see.
Sidney Poitier carved out his career taking on parts people needed to see. He never gift-wrapped his performances because he was the gift.
His talent, charisma, and handsome Black face changed Hollywood. But Poitier, the husband, father, and activist, changed the world. His celebrated acting career only represents a sliver of what he accomplished during his 94 years on the planet.
Don’t dare think of him as just an actor, though. Mr. Poitier was a force of nature who happened to act. A tsunami of brilliance, principles, and compassion who leveraged his celebrity to hold America to its shining ideals.
Where do you even begin to discuss someone who meant so much to so many? How about from the beginning.
Director Reginald Hudlin’s documentary Sidney spotlights the icon’s life and career. The film begins with Poitier’s humble beginnings as a child in the Bahamas where he grew up in a home without electricity and running water. It’s a rags to riches story brought to life in vivid detail by Poitier himself.
Poitier speaks straight to the camera and reveals intimate details about his life. He also narrates as Hudlin cuts between archival footage, clips from his films, and a host of one-on-one interviews with the icon’s family and friends.
The interviewees are a who’s who of Hollywood’s influential stars. Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Robert Redford, Halle Berry, Barbra Streisand, Spike Lee, Quincy Jones, and many more share their love and admiration for their colleague and friend.
Sidney’s at its best whenever Hudlin covers Poitier’s friendship with Harry Belafonte. Their competitive streaks and political beliefs sometimes made it difficult to tolerate each other, and they could go years without speaking. But even when they butt heads, their love and respect for each other remained.
When they share the screen, they have supernova chemistry you can’t look away from. There’s a sense that their on-again-off-again friendship could support its own documentary.
You could spin Poitier’s life into a ten-part docuseries, and it wouldn’t do the man justice. Hudlin does the best anyone can covering a legendary life in 106 minutes. Sidney does an excellent job explaining who Poitier was, what he accomplished, and why he mattered. It’s a thoughtful and polished doc that goes down easy, given much of the heavy subject matter.
If I had a note, the doc could have spent more time covering Poitier’s life after acting. We get some tentpole moments, but the doc mostly breezes over his work as a director and producer. In the end, Sidney works whether you’re a lifelong fan or unfamiliar with his work.
Sidney tells a story about a man who succeeded while facing impossible odds. He lived in an America that violently opposed strong Black voices. There was no space in the cultural landscape for Black actors to be anything beyond servants and comic relief.
Poitier’s rising career threatened America’s racist institutions. He chose roles that defied mainstream notions of who a Black person could be and what they could achieve.
The racists tried to stifle his voice. They tried to break his spirit. They even tried to put him six feet under. And still, Poitier’s star ascended until he became a beacon of hope for Blacks worldwide. The racist attacks brought his purpose into focus. The hatred only fuelled his passion. It strengthened his conviction.
He’s like the rose blooming through the cracks in the concrete. We’re drawn to its beauty and resilience.
One of the film’s most powerful moments happens while Hudlin interviews Oprah Winfrey, the gold standard for Black excellence. Oprah admits she wouldn’t be the person she is without Poitier’s mentorship. To give this sequence context, Oprah is famous for her regal composure. But in this moment, she’s so overtaken with love and admiration for her guiding light, she breaks down and sobs into her hands.
Even our heroes need heroes.
Poitier’s work championing racial equality is enough to enshrine him on the civil rights Mt. Rushmore. But his achievements didn’t end there. After changing America’s notion of who a Black man could be, he went on to live the best version of his life.
Sidney Poitier led by example. He risked his life and career for what he believed in. And then he showed the world what it means to be a loving husband, a proud father, and selfless friend.
He wasn’t just the bridge helping African Americans reach the promised land; he was also the destination.