New Apple TV+ documentary Sidney tells the story of the great actor and activist Sidney Poitier. Filmed just before his death in January 2022, the film delivers a gripping, first-person chronicle of a man discovering himself, finding his talent, and divining the character of the country he called home.
Irreplaceable guests like Greg Tate, Spike Lee and Harry Belafonte join Poitier to recount his life and times in the excellent Sidney, from director Reginald Hudlin and producer Oprah Winfrey.
Sidney review: A portrait of Sidney Poitier
Born in the Bahamas, Sidney Poitier enjoyed a leisurely childhood on Cat Island in the Bahamas. He learned gradually about how things were and how people lived. Though his mother was strict, he was loved and protected.
Then he moved to Florida and found out that life on the island was not like life in America. Menaced by the Klan and the police (back then, what was the difference?), he moved to New York and started working at a bar until he could afford a home. (He slept in a public restroom for weeks.)
Poitier learned to read with the help of a waiter. He wanted to be an actor, but he had the voice of an uneducated man from the islands. He trained for months, listened intently to broadcasts, and finally lost his accent.
A new job, and a new best friend: Harry Belafonte
He started working at the American Negro Theatre in New York, where he met Harry Belafonte, his best friend and frequent sparring partner. They started doing plays together in the mid-1940s.
One night, Poitier went on for Belafonte as his understudy, and he was spotted by a producer who happened to be there on the one night Harry wasn’t performing. Poitier was cast in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s movie No Way Out, and it changed his career.
Mankiewicz was Hollywood royalty, and he was trying to make a movie about race in as stirring a way as he could manage. In the film, Poitier’s character, a doctor, accidentally kills a patient. And that sets off a racist (played by Richard Widmark), who organizes a riot to demand accountability. It was the first movie Poitier’s family had ever seen.
Strong decisions that would’ve made his father proud
Offered a part in the excellent film The Phenix City Story, Poitier rightly realized that his character was not fully fleshed out. After the character’s daughter is killed, he doesn’t get to express his feelings about her death. Poitier thought for a minute about what his dad would have done in that situation, and turned down the role, despite badly needing the money.
As Poitier’s career progressed, he would always act as if his father, Reginald, would be the name on the marquee. Would he be proud of this part? After impressing Richard Brooks with his performance in his movie Blackboard Jungle, Poitier was offered a part in the director’s next film Something of Value. Poitier’s career skyrocketed and never waned.
The Defiant Ones followed in 1958, making Poitier an icon. It’s a tough film. On the one hand, Poitier’s character asserts his personhood — basically a first for a Black actor in Hollywood storytelling. However, the character also gives up his freedom for his white friend, which pissed off Black audiences as much as the rest of the movie energized them. James Baldwin famously decried the ending in his amazing volume The Devil Finds Work.
Even more powerful was Poitier’s next project, the play A Raisin in the Sun, which became a movie directed by Daniel Petrie. A part in Paris Blues led Poitier to an affair with his married co-star, Diahann Carroll.
From powerful actor to civil rights activist
Poitier and Belafonte (on top of their work on liberal films) joined Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement and brought the whole of Hollywood with them. Poitier became a hero, but it didn’t really last. Movies like In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner made some Black people look at him askance.
He was called an Uncle Tom, insulted and mistrusted. Spike Lee describes it thusly: Poitier was the first Black actor to break through in the American consciousness, the Jackie Robinson of the screen, which meant he had to learn the hard way what the backlash to that would feel like. Greg Tate states that the films weren’t really for black audiences, but rather baby steps for white audiences to get used to the idea of Black people.
The death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Then an assassin shot Martin Luther King Jr., and Poitier spiraled. He divorced his wife, mourned his hero King, and fought with his friend Belafonte. Poitier began to feel like a pariah in his community. He all but turned away from everything, but was given a life raft when he was offered The Lost Man, a movie about Black revolutionaries.
Once more, Poitier found himself working with the zeitgeist. He married his co-star Joanna Shimkus and became closer to his children. Then Belafonte called him back after years without speaking. He offered him a movie called Buck and the Preacher. A week into shooting, they fired director Joseph Sargent and Poitier took over. He was back.
Poitier started directing regularly, becoming the first major Black comedy director. He also started accepting honorariums, gracefully transitioned to occasional character actor, and won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. And then, when he died, he died a legend.
A moving documentary about an extraordinary man
Sidney director Reginald Hudlin is such a pro behind the camera that it doesn’t particularly matter that he doesn’t take many risks in the documentary. The interviews are all talking heads. The music by Marcus Miller keeps things flowing. The film spends very little time on Poitier’s failures (1990 bomb Ghost Dad never comes up, for instance.) And, though Sidney pays lip service to Poitier’s personal betrayals and the fact that he, too, was human, mostly the film wouldn’t mind if you left with the impression that he was just about the finest man who ever lived.
In fairness, who else do we know on the world stage who gives Poitier credible competition? And in further fairness, what he did was legendary and monumental for Black people in America, and by extension all people everywhere. There is no undercutting what Poitier did, even if we may wish he had gone further.
He moved mountains by refusing to accept less than he imagined he should give and be given. He lived a remarkable life and he was one of the most dignified public figures of the last hundred years. I think he’s earned a little hagiography. (Bonus points: Whoopi Goldberg doesn’t show up.)
An excellent introduction to a remarkable career
This movie is rather moving and its one-hour, 51-minute screening time flies by. While it doesn’t have the ambition of Poitier’s best movies, it does at least make us understand in hindsight why it is that certain people pray in his direction to this day.
I grew up in the twilight years of his career, so I was aware at a very young age that this man was important (and what a gorgeous and poised actor he was, even in silly matinee fodder like The Jackal or Sneakers; he’s very good in the latter). But for those who weren’t paying as close attention, or were born after 9/11, Sidney is a good, digestible and at times beautiful look at a public life lived with private decency.
Watch Sidney on Apple TV+
Sidney premieres September 23 on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.