Stardom rarely works retrospectively. Garbo? James Dean? Steve McQueen? If you weren’t around then, it can be hard to see now what all the fuss was about. With Sidney Poitier, you not only do. You see what an understatement “fuss” is.
It’s more than the many film clips that are included in “Sidney,” an Apple TV+ documentary that starts streaming Friday. Reginald Hudlin directed. It’s more even than the wildly laudatory comments from the likes of Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman and Barbra Streisand and Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s producers. Where you see it most clearly is in the interviews Poitier did for the documentary.
Wearing a jacket and open-collared pink dress shirt, Poitier looks into the camera and just talks: nothing fancy, nothing special. He’s the one who’s so clearly special. “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world,” the Declaration of Independence says. This is a no-less-candid gaze which stands up to that candid world.
Poitier died in January, at age 94. Even in his 90s, you can’t take your eyes off of him: He remains that handsome, that magnetic, that regal. You can’t take your ears off him, either. It goes beyond that irresistibly clipped, lilting accent. It’s what a marvelous storyteller he is.
“I believe my life has had more than a few wonderful, indescribable turns,” he says. That’s an understatement. He was born two months premature and wasn’t expected to live. His parents were tomato farmers on Cat Island, in the Bahamas. There was no running water or electricity. The family moved to Nassau, then Poitier joined his older brother and sister-in-law in Miami. He was just 15. A few years later he moved to New York, got a job as a dishwasher, saw an ad for auditions for the American Negro Theatre. Five years later, he was in his first movie, “No Way Out” (1950), fourth billed, no less.
“Sidney” celebrates its subject. His widow, Joanna Shimkus Poitier, and one of Poitier’s daughters are among the executive producers. Both are interviewed, as are four of his other daughters. The documentary is no vanity project, though. Stars may be heroic. Few are saintly. Also interviewed are Poitier’s first wife, Juanita Hardy, and Lenny Kravitz, the nephew of Diahann Carroll. It was Poitier’s affair with Carroll that contributed to the break-up of his marriage.
Combining as it does great admiration with an acknowledgment of flaws, “Sidney” is like Ethan Hawke’s recent HBO Max documentary about Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, “The Last Movie Stars.” Poitier, who’s briefly heard in “Last Movie Stars,” costarred with Newman in “Paris Blues.”
That movie came out in 1961. Within a few years, Poitier became as big a star as there was in Hollywood. He won a best actor Oscar, for “Lilies of the Field” (1963), the first Black to do so. His annus mirabilis was 1967, with “To Sir, With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” All were big hits, all were much talked about, all get well covered here. It’s nice to see Lulu, who sang the title song and has a role in “To Sir,” as one of the talking heads. She even sings a bit of the song.
Part of why Poitier loomed so large was that, as America erupted in the ‘60s, he was part of the eruption. He participated in the March on Washington, in 1963. He went to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, where he and his best friend, Harry Belafonte, were chased by a car full of Klansmen.
More than a star, Poitier was a cultural presence: a beacon for Black America (“a lighthouse on a promontory” is how Freeman describes him) and a flesh-and-blood reproach to racism. “I don’t think Sidney ever played a subservient part,” Freeman marvels. It would have been the ultimate casting against type, and no one would have believed it, anyway.
That larger status came at a cost. “It’s difficult when you’re carrying other people’s dreams,” Winfrey remembers Poitier telling her. He never let that difficulty show, even when some called him a white fantasy figure or Uncle Tom.
The contrast with Poitier’s best friend, the much more politically engaged Belafonte, is noted. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” for all its good intentions, seemed even at the time like an especially maladroit example of white-liberal self-congratulation. Today it’s an embarrassment. A clip from the movie is accompanied on the soundtrack by James Brown’s “Funky President (People It’s Bad).” Point taken. That the Blaxploitation films of the early ‘70s were a backlash against Poitier’s roles and image does not go unmentioned.
During that decade, Poitier acted a little, but focused more on directing. After that, there was the occasional acting role, but mostly Poitier enjoyed a very rare status: superstar emeritus. That the first word remained justified is evident in the clips shown from the presentation of his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, in 1992, and Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2009.
Let Halle Berry have the final say. “Who had a smile like that?” To ask the question is to answer it.
Directed by Reginald Hudlin. Written by Jesse James Miller. Streaming on Apple TV+. 112 minutes. PG-13 (an excremental noun is uttered in a casual, cheerful fashion; otherwise it’s a very soft PG)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.