‘Sidney’ – Inspirational documentary highlights Sidney Poitier’s delicate balancing act
By Eleanor Ringel Cater
For those of us of a certain age, whether we are black or white or something in between, the miracle of Sidney Poitier remains as indisputable as it is somewhat inexplicable.
Here is this stunningly handsome man, the epitome of Noble Negro (or Magical Negro for some) who somehow performed a racially charged balancing act that most of us could never handle, let alone understand.
There was never someone quite like Sidney Poitier and, as this film’s sidekicks eagerly attest (Spike Lee, Harry Belafonte, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Andrew Young, among others), he couldn’t never be.
For years he has carried the burden of representing an entire race, and he has done so with such a true touch, so in tune with the often obscene echo chamber of our mid-century life, that he is almost impossible to imagine cinema without him.
If I spring, well, it’s because I can.
The documentary “Sidney”, directed by Reginald Hudlin and sprinkled with the bright and shiny names above, is not in itself a brilliant work. It’s not necessary. His genius is in making us learn the backstory of Poitier z – not the whole backstory; Hudlin only has 2 hours – as best we can.
It’s not the warts and all version. Rather, it is an uninhibited hagiography with, here and there, a perhaps piercing wart. The movie isn’t executed with any filmmaker flourishes, either. It’s simple and clear and that’s, I think, the key to its power.
Because think about it. Who else could have negotiated the racial maze that was 20th century America in general and Hollywood in particular? In his very first film, “No Way Out”, as he enters the operating room, Dr. Poitier hears his patient protest: “I don’t want him! I want one white doctor!”
And so it goes. “Cry the Beloved Country”, “Blackboard Jungle”, “Porgy and Bess”, “The Defiant Ones”. Good pictures, but not enough to make him a star. Then his friend Harry Belafonte refuses “Lilies of the Field”, and Poitier becomes the first black man to win an Oscar (we are in 1964; his only predecessor is Hattie McDaniel in 1939).
In the meantime, the emblematic presence of Poitiers is essential on another front. Namely the civil rights movement. Young notes that in the early 1960s, “Harry and Sidney made it a world event before Martin Luther King said a word.”
Before arriving at the Summer of Sidney, as I think Lee calls it, that is to say 1967 with the triple whammy of “In the Heat of the Night”, “To Sir, With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” the movie makes sure we have the basic biographical facts.
Born in 1927 in the Bahamas (two months premature and likely to die), the young Sidney moved to Florida and encountered his first “For Colored Only” signs. He does the dishes in Hell’s Kitchen where a nice Jewish waiter teaches him to read. He struggles to get rid of his island accent while listening to the radio. And then a break: Belafonte has (yet) to take a shift in the trash, and Poitier, his understudy, continues in the Broadway production of “A Raisin in the Sun”.
That’s a lot to cover, and Hudlin is doing his best. But there’s a skimmed feeling, especially when we get to the crucial late ’60s period when the Black Panthers are the new hip thing and Poitier begins to be smeared with the dismissive accusation of Uncle Tom-ism ( The New York Times even writes an article “Why do white people love Sidney Poitier?”)
“That’s some Jackie Robinson shit,” says an empathetic Spike Lee.
“Was it lonely? Poitier asks rhetorically. “Sure.”
Here’s where “Sidney” could probably use another hour or maybe split into a 2-part series. This transition time between the slap heard around the world (Poitier lets a white hole have him in “In the heat of the night”) and the actor’s transition to directing and less “heavy” projects is a crucial moment that deserves more attention. .
Yet you leave “Sidney” feeling downright elated. His balancing act has never been matched – and has yet to be fully explored. At least this documentary is a good start. And in the end, when Oprah Winfrey, who also produced, bursts into tears because, well, Sidney Poitier is so beautifully Sidney Poitier, you may want to do the same.