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‘Sidney' Review: Sidney Poitier Is A Trailblazer but ‘Sidney’ Refutes the Trail Blazed for Him

Dir. Reginald Hudlin — 3 Stars

The new documentary aims to bring Sidney Poitier’s light back into focus following his 2022 death.
The new documentary aims to bring Sidney Poitier’s light back into focus following his 2022 death. By Courtesy of EPK.TV
By Avery Britt, Contributing Writer

What happens when a beacon of light dies? The Oprah Winfrey produced, Reginald Hudlin directed documentary “Sidney” suggests that it continues to shine on the people it has warmed. To many Black people, in the words of Morgan Freeman, Sidney Poitier was this “bright light,” and “no other beacon [was] as sure as that, [and] believed in as strongly as that.”

Poitier became one of the most bankable leading men and one of the only Black stars in early 1960s Hollywood, with a filmography including “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” among scores of others. Perhaps most notable is “Lilies of the Field,” for which he became the first Black man to win an Oscar.

Chronicling this extraordinary life, the new documentary aims to bring Sidney Poitier’s light back into focus following his 2022 death. Overall, the filmmakers deliver a solid picture that highlights the pride that Poitier gifted to Black people, but in giving thanks to this forefather, “Sidney” rebuffs the founding fathers of Black cinema.

Where recent documentaries on celebrities like Paul Newman or Jane Fonda have taken the route of angling the person’s life through a single lens, “Sidney” chooses to attack the behemoth of Poitier’s experiences from all angles, presumably with the aim of painting the clearest picture of the star’s existence within and outside of the American film landscape. “Sidney” takes viewers from Poitier’s joining the American Negro Theatre through his time as a beloved comedy director. The movie does not only silo his accomplishments to onscreen work, either. It ensures the audience knows Poitier’s deep familial values, originating from his parents and his Bahamian homeland, while also highlighting moments of transgression, particularly Poitier’s affair with actress Diahann Carroll.

By trying to touch on a bit of everything, however, the portrait painted in “Sidney” becomes muddled.

Jarring cuts and unexplored holes pock-mark a well-aiming documentary. Just as the audience starts to see Poitier’s affair with Carroll unfolding, understanding that this “near-perfect” figure might betray the morals that have themed the movie, the narrative cuts frustratingly to the March on Washington, and then just as quickly to “Lilies of the Field.” However, the pacing is among the least egregious issues of the film.

The documentary begins by painting a picture of Poitier’s life as a poor child in the Bahamas, sans electricity, sans education, but most importantly, according to Winfrey’s claims, sans racial bias. Poitier, even in his disadvantages and later descrimination, did not have the Black American affliction from birth. His upbringing in the more accepting community of the Bahamas meant that he did not struggle to recognize his innate humanity, as every Black person growing up in the U.S. must do. Winfrey says that “he wasn’t defined by his color, and he wasn’t saying that as resistance,” as if shouting that credo in defiance was not a necessity for some. Getting the chance not to be socially defined by race is a privilege ignored in the film, replaced by an attitude that praises this ideal thinking as the assumed default, which if one cannot embody, means a moral failure. At the time, most Black people in the U.S. could not think so idealistically, especially those giants of cinema who came before Poitier.

The methods “Sidney” chooses to employ to set Poitier apart from his predecessors delegitmize the contributions made by these actors. People like Mantan Moreland, Paul Robeson, and Hattie McDaniel — all Black actors in the studio system — forced their way into this white space. To do so, they unfortunately had to ingratiate themselves to a racist, white audience that only recognized them in sub-humanity.

While Morgan Freeman proudly claims that Sidney Poitier never took a role that forced him to “bug his eyes,” or “duck his head,” he suggests that the dehumanization of Black people on-screen is a choice made by these studio-age actors that Poitier was simply above. But these Black actors did not necessarily want to assume these tropes (Poitier’s personal view mentioned in the documentary is overpowered by the adoration of contemporary voices). They deserve the respect that should come with blazing a trail, especially given the fact that Hattie McDaniel, for example, was the first Black person ever to win an Oscar. The documentary chooses to subtly dismiss these older stars in favor of naming Poitier as the only forefather. Additionally, it makes the claim that Poitier’s ability to avoid playing racist characters comes from talent, bravery, and dignity, yes, but also the luck of ever being able to find one’s worth in a supposedly racially blind community before entering the jarring racism of the U.S..

Even in the documentary’s missteps, however, there are beacons of light. The choice of interviewees includes a smattering of massively acclaimed stars like Denzel Washington to activists like Andrew Young and even the documentary’s subject himself — a rare gem in expository documentary filmmaking. All these juggernauts feel the indelible effect of Poitier’s legacy and live by his example everyday in their careers. “Sidney” understands the expression of Black joy that comes from his presence.

Everyone from Spike Lee to Quincy Jones describes the vindication that Black folks felt sitting in the theater when Poitier in “In the Heat of the Night” slapped a white man. Viewers can see the happiness and a collective “fist pump” emanating from these titans of film as they recall the scene. Sidney Poitier stands alone in numerous ways and his legacy deserves and needs to be preserved, and this documentary is an adequate way of doing so. However, Poitier’s legacy exists so incredibly that bolstering it does not necessitate putting down his predecessors; it can stand proudly alone as he did not have to.

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