VOD film review: Sidney
Ivan | On 24, Sep 2022
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Cast: Sidney Poitier
“I was not expected to live.” Those are the words of Sidney Poitier that open Apple TV+’s new documentary about the iconic actor, who passed away in January 2022. Simply titled Sidney, it’s a film that startles you with just how much of him there is on screen – and how we need little more than that to keep us captivated.
Directed by Reginald Hudlin, the documentary provides a comprehensive overview of the star’s life, from his birth two months premature – leading doctors to pronounce that he would not survive – to his landmark contribution to the film industry. A string of talking heads give us a real sense of how his career reverberated beyond the silver screen, from Spike Lee and Morgan Freeman to Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey, who produces the project.
Their amusing anecdotes and heartfelt tributes outline how his presence in front of the camera was a trailblazing step forward, building on the work of such Black stars as Paul Robeson and the Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel. From Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to To Sir, with Love, Poitier’s significant success lay not only in the way that he became a mainstream box office draw but also in the roles he took. He selected parts that would avoid perpetuating stereotypes about Black lives, and pushed for the characters he did play to behave in a way that would be realistic rather than based on clichéd Hollywood portrayals. We see and hear in detail, right down to specific decisions and moments, how he essentially helped to humanise Black people for white audiences. Later, when he stepped behind the camera, he also ensured the crews of his movies were populated with Black talent.
These were seismic contributions to diversity and progress in the entertainment world, although the film also acknowledges that they were, in some ways, small steps forward – Hudlin thoughtfully contextualises Poitier’s popularity and influence against society’s changing backdrop, from the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers to Blaxploitation movies, as years and film titles fly past with engaging momentum.
This isn’t, however, at the expense of studying Poitier the person, and the film is commendably, surprisingly honest in that regard – it notably doesn’t shy away from the ending of his marriage to Juanita Hardy as a result of his affair with Diahann Carroll. A key part of this achievement is having access to footage from several hours of frank interviews conducted by Winfrey with Poitier in 2012, which means that he’s presented in his own words. We hear first-hand about how, having grown up the Bahamas, he saw himself as a man – not as a Black man – and how that sense of identity, and pride in his family, fuelled his worldview and informed his respectful attitudes towards others and towards himself.
Poitier as a director, we’re told, wasn’t a technically astonishing creative force, but he was a compassionate director of actors and drew out sincere performances that would connect with audiences. Hudlin manages something similar, in that his documentary is elevated above its unshowy but meticulous editing by the way it draws Poitier’s personality out on camera with minimal distractions. For a surprisingly large chunk of the 100-minute runtime, we’re watching Poitier’s own talking head and listening to his familiar voice (which gets its own in-depth examination early on). Sidney knows that the charisma and power of Poitier simply telling stories down a lens is enough to make you appreciate his life and legacy all over again.