Apple TV+’s new doc about the Black film legend is content to glide over his glossy surfaces, refusing to dig under the man’s skin.
Sidney Poitier lived an incredible life. He was undeniable in every sense of the word. Even a quick glance at his biography reveals the depths of his star power, his acting prowess in films throughout the 1960s and 1970s (A Raisin in the Sun, In the Heat of the Night, etc.), and his impact, with an Oscar, a Grammy, a BAFTA, and knighthood to his name. Sidney, a new documentary from Reginald Hudlin, is a down-the-middle biography of the late actor. Poitier’s gravity makes it watchable, but its filmmaking leaves much to be desired.
Built from interviews with Poitier and several current Black pop culture A-listers, including producer Oprah Winfrey, Sidney offers an overview of Poitier’s life. Its subjects include his teenage years in Miami, as well as his careers in New York and Hollywood, Poitier defied the odds. His story remains remarkable, and his influence has seeped into our collective film consciousness. Poitier became one of the first bankable Black stars, changing the roles that newer generations of actors of color would receive. He beat out the pigeonholing nature of Hollywood.
But the thornier aspects of Poitier’s life go unexplored. His near-decade of infidelity with Diahann Carroll isn’t looked into, his blacklisting is a passing thought, and James Baldwin’s criticism of The Defiant Ones, a movie that helped vault him into stardom, is resolved within seconds. Baldwin held the film accountable for its politics, citing its white view of freedom and Poitier’s character’s willingness to provide complete absolution to those around him in his essay “The Devil Finds Work.”
Rather than diving into Baldwin and others’ critiques, the film cuts to Winfrey, who talks about how important the actor is to her, ending any discussion. Poitier’s life was a difficult, messy one, filled with prickly decisions made by a man that was attempting, and succeeding, to be a trailblazer.
The talking heads are primarily used to show how Poitier is revered and beloved by today’s important Black celebrities. Winfrey, specifically, shows how much the actor means to her, and rightly so. The doc needs more than constant compliments. Her influence goes beyond necessary, with each piece of praise used to move on from a stickier subject. It lacks a measure of introspection and directorial inspection. It scratches the surface of a man that deserved a closer look, even if that surface remains astounding. Hudlin attempts to straddle the line between an introduction to Poitier and an in-depth look at specific moments in his life, hoping to cater to younger and older audiences alike.
Because Hudlin and the team want to go through the actor’s life, they lack the time to delve into certain moments with added depth. Marriages are given a few minutes, and many of his movies are passed over for more considerable career achievements. Hudlin focuses on the films that catapulted Poitier: Lilies of the Field, The Defiant Ones, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. At less than two hours, Sidney feels rushed, unable to study the life of the most influential actors of the last 75 years in the detail that life demands.
The main reason to watch Sidney? The opportunity to hear from Poitier himself. The Academy Award winner commands attention as if he speaks entirely in divine wisdom. He’s an interviewer’s dream subject, full of idioms, expressions, and profound conversation. It’s a joy to hear him recount life experiences, tell stories, and dip into the emotions that flooded his life over the last nine decades. Poitier’s presence becomes the most engaging aspect of Hudlin’s film. Thus, the film oscillates between these two extremes of interest in Poitier while he’s speaking and wishing that Hudlin dug deeper into the former’s life.
Sidney will act as a refresher for most viewers older than 40 and function as a conventional, though extensive, look at Poitier for others. Its overview of Poitier’s life and times is admirable, but a pervasive hollowness undercuts it. Poitier’s charisma, still bursting well into old age, goes a long way. Sidney cannot keep up with him.
Sidney is currently streaming on Apple TV+.