tv Sidney Poitier Was an Icon. But Oprah Winfrey’s Documentary Sidney Is Too Worshipful a Tribute.
Sidney is an entirely conventional but handsome Apple TV+ documentary about actor-director Sidney Poitier, directed by Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang, Marshall) and produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. It’s inevitably loaded with Winfrey’s interview commentary and film footage, as well as her worshipful attitude toward Poitier, whom she called “the great black hope for me.” She tells the story of Poitier attending her forty-second birthday party, for example, and taking her aside to counsel her about how to handle criticism from fellow black people for being too “white-friendly.” The self-serving way Winfrey aligns her own narrative of achievement and suffering with his is uncomfortable because Poitier’s life story is what she’s celebrating as a kind of profile in courage. And whatever Winfrey’s accomplishments, she wasn’t trying to forge a film career back in the 1950s, when a black person playing anything but a servant role on-screen was still groundbreaking.
Much of Poitier’s life and career is well known, especially since his death in January 2022, which led to an outpouring of lengthy tributes to his many trailblazing achievements. He’d also written several autobiographies, 1980’s This Life, 2000’s The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, and 2008’s Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter — the second one named an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 2007. Poitier also recorded interviews with Winfrey in 2012 that are included in the documentary, another indication that he intended to have a thorough say about his own life. But even if you know a lot about him in broad strokes, some of the details of his life, especially his early years, are eye opening.
Like the way Poitier, the son of tomato farmers in the Bahamas, grew up in such poverty that he’d never seen a mirror in the first ten years of his life. Or the time shortly after he immigrated to the United States, when the Ku Klux Klan visited his brother’s house in Florida, hunting for him, because fifteen-year-old delivery worker Poitier brought a package to the front door of a white person’s house instead of the back door. Accustomed to the majority-black population of the Bahamas, Poitier was completely unprepared for virulent American racism. Once the KKK paid a visit, Poitier tried to leave town, but he was detained by police at the deserted bus station late at night. A gun was placed against his forehead, and he was told that if he walked all the way home without looking back, they wouldn’t shoot him. The cop car followed him to his brother’s house, while the terrified Poitier, not daring to look back, glanced sideways into the reflecting windows he passed to see that the car was still crawling along after him.
Though it nearly got him killed, Poitier always regarded his upbringing in the Caribbean, outside the cauldron of racist fury that was (and is) the United States, as one of the keys to his breakthrough as the first black leading man. His friend Harry Belafonte, raised in Jamaica, felt the same, always saying they had an advantage over young black American performers who had been crushed by their internalization of Jim Crow–era racism.
A cursory read-through of Poitier’s life suggests he dealt with tremendous early hardship but broke through to success and major stardom early. But the complicated ways that the hardships continued even after tremendous success, addressed in Sidney, might not be as well known. After he’d scored the lead role opposite Richard Widmark in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film noir No Way Out (1950), about a black doctor facing the violent racism of his own patients, Poitier went right back to one of his many laboring jobs, still struggling to support his young family.
Poitier stood up against the Hollywood blacklist in a remarkable way when he refused to sign a loyalty oath, which was required of the actors in Blackboard Jungle (1955). This documentary doesn’t make it quite clear how he got away with that. And there’s almost no explanation of how this, plus his strong record of participation in the left-wing theatrical events and organizations, such as the one he helped found in the late 1940s, Committee for the Negro in the Arts (CNA), or his friendships with blacklisted actors Paul Robeson and Canada Lee, didn’t manage to end his film career before it started.
Poitier was being tracked by the government, mainly, he claimed, because of his friendship with Robeson. And Spike Lee adds vaguely that the blackballing of Robeson in the United States created a “road map” indicating how Poitier could move forward himself. But it’s all very elliptical.
Harry Belafonte (left) with Sidney Poitier (right) at the New York premiere of director George Stevens’s film The Greatest Story Ever Told, in which Poitier starred, New York City, circa 1965. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
In Sidney, tough moments in Poitier’s career are repeatedly glossed over. In an interview, James Baldwin was quoted to him as saying, in angry response to The Defiant Ones (1958), “Get back on that train, you fool!” after watching Poitier’s runaway convict character sacrifice his own hope of freedom for the sake of his white friend, played by Tony Curtis. “What’s your response to that?” the interviewer asked Poitier. “I have no response to that,” said Poitier, asserting that the film was “revolutionary.”
Poitier seems more tormented, in this documentary, by his infidelity, as he conducted a nine-year affair with actor Diahann Carroll, than with his increasingly controversial political position as the 1960s rocked on.
Poitier’s first wife, Juanita Hardy, had to persuade him to take the lead role in 1963’s Lilies of the Field, which was a low-budget, independently produced film that offered very little compensation. (It’s the film that won him his landmark Academy Award for Best Actor.) Harry Belafonte had turned down the part of handyman Homer Smith, who builds a church for some very demanding East German nuns, because he was appalled by what he considered a demeaning role. But Denzel Washington offers the scornful comment that Belafonte was doing very well “Day-O-ing,” and that “if you can afford the house payment, you can afford to turn down roles like that.” After seeing Poitier’s dynamic performance, even Belafonte had to admit that “he was wonderful in that picture.”
There’s a very powerful story told by the Reverend Willie Blue, a civil rights activist, about Belafonte and Poitier risking their lives to deliver funds to the student organizers in Mississippi in 1964. The film stars had been assured they’d have federal protection, which never appeared. They were immediately pursued by the KKK. Blue, who was driving the car behind the vehicle carrying Poitier and Belafonte, with the KKK ramming into him the whole way, felt his job was to make sure they didn’t get by him, “even though this is the way I have to die.” When the caravan finally shook off their pursuers and got where they were going, the student organizers lining the route, some sitting in the branches of the trees, broke out in a spontaneous chorus of “Amen,” Homer Smith’s song in Lilies of the Field. Blue weeps while recalling it.
Given all this, it’s ironic that a serious breakdown in the long Belafonte-Poitier friendship was over Belafonte’s greater political radicalism. When Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, Belafonte wanted to hold a rally, presumably to build on the outrage over King’s murder to advocate for the increasingly socialistic changes he was killed for. But Poitier felt that it was not the time for it — that the attention should remain on mourning King’s death and celebrating his life and achievements. Poitier’s approach was the one taken, and the documentary presents it as wiser than Belafonte’s “Don’t Mourn, Organize” style.
The #TeamPoitier documentary glosses over the details of his hotter political youth and increasingly moderate liberalism that impaired his career in the tumultuous late 1960s, with the sudden shift in cultural expectations after his astonishing career peak in 1967 with three hit films, In the Heat of the Night; To Sir, With Love; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Poitier noted bitterly that, even as he hit this peak, his appeal for white audiences meant that “black people, my people, think that I’m an Uncle Tom.” This sent him into a short but successful directing career in the 1970s. And, as is typical of accounts of Poitier’s life, the remainder is summed up in vague montages of happy family life with second wife Joanna Shimkus and his six daughters, as well as awards and honors received from various film and arts organizations and governments, including the honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, conferred by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974, and the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009.
Dissenting voices in general concerning Poitier are given no hearing in this documentary. If some of the people interviewed, such as Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Barbra Streisand, Morgan Freeman, and Lenny Kravitz, had any real criticism to offer, they kept it to themselves, or else it was edited out. But in fact, there were those who weren’t so enamored of Poitier. Eartha Kitt, for example, found him pompous and self-righteous, as she made clear in her 1989 autobiography, Confessions of a Sex Kitten: “Sidney was giving his grandiose speeches as usual,” she wrote of one formal dinner. “If Sidney had not become an actor, I am sure he would have been a preacher; he was always practicing on anyone who would listen.”
In short, this is a gushing tribute film, not a fully rounded portrait of a human being who had weaknesses to go along with his many strengths. The very areas you might most like fresh details about Poitier are the areas skimmed over. Still, it’s undeniable that Poitier was a fascinating film star with an epic life, and it’s nice to watch some rarely seen footage and hear some new anecdotes about him.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
The new issue of Jacobin is out now. Subscribe today and get a yearlong print and digital subscription.