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A sweeping documentary about the life and legacy of iconic actor and activist Sidney Poitier, from his early years in the Bahamas to the horrific racism he encountered in America to his historic role as a trailblazer in movies and the civil rights movement.
Produced by Oprah Winfrey, the film features interviews with Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Harry Belafonte, Morgan Freeman, Barbara Streisand, Robert Redford and Oprah herself.
He was the first Black leading man — and the biggest box office draw in the nation — at the height of the civil rights movement when the country was erupting in protests. “We were hanging together by a few cultural threads,” Quincy Jones shares in the film. “And Sidney Poitier is one of those cultural threads.”
As much a potent history lesson as it is a stirring tribute to a legend, Sidney is a testament to just how influential Poitier was, and what he had to overcome to become not just a great actor, but the first Black actor to win an Academy Award, the first Black director of a commercial Hollywood film, and, ultimately, the embodiment of Black excellence.
As interviews with Poitier reveal, he grew up without electricity or even a mirror, the son of tomato farmers in the Bahamas. Yet he also grew up without racism. Surrounded only by people who looked like him, it wasn’t until he landed in Miami as a teenager that he got a shocking wake-up call. The stories he shares about how he was treated are so upsetting, they’ll prompt an anger and a disgust that makes it hard to imagine how Poitier overcame them. Yet he persevered, determined he would never play the insulting roles offered to so many Black actors.
Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Halle Barry underscore his importance in paving the way for other actors — pushing back on the “Magical negro” roles, instead insisting on playing characters that represented his own convictions.
With a rousing soundtrack and archival footage, director Reginald Hudlin also shows us Poitier’s impact as an activist, with a fascinating look at how he teamed up with his sometime rival Harry Belafonte to join civil rights protesters in the south — a scene that ends with a unified group of supporters singing a song from Poitier’s film, Lilies in the Field.
The doc doesn’t completely shy away from his personal life, including the affair he had with co-star Diahann Carroll and the toll it took. We hear from the children he had with his first and second wives and the relationships they shared with him, and we also see how the bi-racial kids he had with his second wife were encouraged to connect with their full identities.
The film ends on an especially heartfelt note, with a tribute from Oprah that will have you reaching for the tissues.
An emotional roller coaster ride, Sidney is a powerful portrait of one of the most influential people in recent history, a man who not only changed the entertainment industry and Black history, but shaped American history.
Where to find it: Apple TV+
Anyone interested in learning more about the civil rights movement and Hollywood history, but especially younger generations who may not know who Poitier was or how much of an impact he made.
Poitier died in January of 2022, just nine months before the film premiered, making it especially poignant.
With the scope of his life, you might wish much more was covered in this doc. I would have liked to have seen more about his role a director. Follow it up with his autobiographies: The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography and Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great Granddaughter.