Reginald Hudlin’s Glowing Portrait of Sidney Poitier – The Hollywood Reporter

Reginald Hudlin’s documentary about Sidney Poitier should be considered the beginning, not the end, of evaluating the prolific actor’s career. SydneyIt premiered at TIFF and streams on Apple TV+ starting September 23, a hagiographic portrait of the kind of craft audiences have come to embrace — even desire — celebrity.

This handy primer chronicles Poitier’s legacy, from his birth in 1972 to his death in January 2022. We learn early on that life is not guaranteed for an actor. He was born two months premature and many people, including his mother’s midwife, predicted imminent death. The morning after Poitier’s birth, his father gathered a shoebox in which to bury the infant. But Poitier’s mother had persistent faith: she had met a soothsayer who told her not to worry about her son’s survival. Poitier not only lived, but traveled to different corners of the earth, he was rich and famous and he carried his family name around the world.


The bottom line

An introduction to a promising, if unchallenged, grand legacy.

Release Date: Friday, September. 23 (Apple TV+)
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Screenwriter: Jesse James Miller

Rated PG-13, 1 hour 51 minutes

The story that Poitier narrates halfway through the film doubles as a metaphor for the actor’s legacy. He spent his life achieving the impossible: he became an actor, became commercially viable, and became the first black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. His ascent in Hollywood — a historically nationalistic, conservative and racist industry — more than fulfilled the soothsayer’s predictions.

Poitier’s early years were marked by movement and exploration. He spent the first fifteen years of his life in the Bahamas, first on Cat Island and then in Nassau. Moving to the capital broadened Poitier’s understanding of the world – where he remembers seeing a car for the first time and learning how reflections in mirrors work. Hudlin shoots interviews in which Poitier talks about his upbringing, so that the actor’s face always covers the screen. This vantage point replicates the intimacy embodied in Poitier’s performances. When he asked “Do you hear me?” After telling the story about the mirror, it feels like he is talking to us, the viewers, on a personal level.

This presence made Poitier a successful actor, although he didn’t start out that way. After 15 years in the Bahamas, Poitier moved to Miami. Before moving to the United States, Poitier did not consider what he looked like. “I saw what I saw,” he says at one point. But spending time in Florida changed what he saw and how he processed it. He began to observe the violent relationship between race and power.

Poitier eventually moved to Harlem, where he worked as a dishwasher and learned to read. He had never acted before but after getting an audition call Amsterdam News, he tried his hand at it. The audition went horribly, but Poitier, never one to say no, was determined to get better. He bought a radio so he could lose his accent by imitating Norman Brokenshire’s silky voice. He bought books and took classes, fighting his way through the ranks as he worked several service jobs. When he scored another audition and booked a role, theater became his therapy. “Acting gave me an area where I could be a performer, where I could vent some of my frustrations, where I could pour some of my confusion and other vices into a fictional character,” Poitier says in the doc.

For Poitier, acting was a place of play, a way of living a life unavailable to him. Maybe that’s why his performances were so electric. once Sydney Moving past the biographical dump of the first half, it organizes Poitier’s life through his characters. from The Defiant Ones And Lilies of the field to Guess who’s coming to dinner And Buck and the preacherHudlin uses Poitier’s filmography as a launchpad to discuss the actor’s art, friendships, love affairs and success.

Hudlin is no stranger to reconstructing the lives of giants. He directed the 2019 Netflix documentary about music executive and producer Clarence Avant, Black Godfather. In that movie, like Sydney, Hudlin gathers a chorus of family, friends and fans of the subject. He arranges his testimonies to fit the traditional narrative mold: the story of coming out and then succeeding. The chaotic aspects of a person’s life are considered marginalia.

in Sydney, Hudlin interviews Poitier’s children, his ex-wife Juanita Hardy, his friend Henry Belafonte and others. Their stories anchor the film personally. Appearances by Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry and Spike Lee establish Poitier within a long tradition of black actors. Writers like the late Greg Tate and Poitier’s historian Aram Goudsouzian add a necessary layer of cultural critique and context.

But no voice rings louder or more passionately than that of Oprah Winfrey, who produced the documentary. She talks about the first time she encountered Poitier, how he made sense of what was possible. When he talks about their first interaction at Quincy Jones’ birthday party, his voice shakes, hinting at tears to come.

There are moments Sydney That shakes off the dutiful air of canonization to arrive at a more complex portrait of Poitier. In these parts of the doc, Hudlin tackles Poitier’s relationship Paris blues co-star Diahan Carroll; his struggles to maintain his integrity; his painful divorce from Hardy; and a turbulent friendship with Belafonte, with whom he often competed for roles. What emerges from these glimpses is Poitier as a man shouldering the responsibilities of representation as he tries to figure out his own life; They aren’t the strongest parts of the doc, they feel like the most sincere.

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