Theater legend Sidney Poitier died in January at the age of 94. He didn’t live to see the thrilling new documentary about his life and career, sydney, which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Toronto Film Festival. However, he had his blessing, and that of his family, for a film that percolated and in development and then in production for five years. And while Poitier himself couldn’t see the finished work, everyone else will get started on September 23 when it begins streaming on Apple TV+ and playing in select theaters.
With Oprah Winfrey on board as producer (along with Derik Murray) and Reginald Hudlin as director, Poitier gets an extraordinarily comprehensive and expansive look at his linearly told, self-told life through the use of eight hours of interviews conducted. in 2012 with Winfrey, as well as other archival interviews. That’s the right way to tell this story, because it’s quite a journey from start to finish for a man who nearly died as a baby, spent his early years in the almost all-black community of the Bahamas, had a terrifying with the Klan, learned English mostly by watching news anchors when he finally arrived in Miami, then New York, where he worked odd jobs and got that oh-so-lucky break as an understudy that went on as if a major Broadway producer was in the house.
All of this eventually led to a first film in the 1950s No Exit, movies such as Blackboard Jungle, something of value and The Defiants, the landmark film that earned him his first Oscar nomination. He would achieve Broadway stardom in A raisin in the sun, repeating the role in the 1960 film version, then just three years later becoming the first black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar for 1963 Field lilies. It was that acceptance speech that summed up his life so much, “It’s been a very long journey up to this point…”, and it’s fitting that this full account of his life take us on this journey with none other than Poitier as our narrator, and in that way it’s almost an extension of the many books he’s written about his life.
Of course, after the Oscar, there’s so much more, including his civil rights work; the remarkable achievement of reaching No. 1 at the box office in 1967 despite having three films: In the heat of the night, guess who’s coming to dinner, and To Sir With Love; plus his two marriages and six daughters; his close relationship with Harry Belafonte; his eventual emergence as a powerful behind-the-scenes figure in the formation of early artists with Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and Steve McQueen; as well as his work behind the camera and becoming the most successful black director at that time with stir crazy earn over $100 million.
A particularly convincing sequence in sydney this is the story of the famous slap in In the heat of the Night where, as Detective Virgil Tibbs, he is slapped by a white man and then slapped him back, a scene that always elicits cheers from the audience. Another is the importance of showing the Black Cowboy, rarely seen on screen until now, in Buck and the preacher which also starred Belafonte and which Poitier directed. There’s so much more and the film is packed full of vintage and archival footage dating back almost 100 years, as well as some choice film clips. The only downside is that in two hours much of his film work had to be left out, but Jesse James Miller’s screenplay keeps tabs on the bigger story than Hudlin and Winfrey, with such generous use of his historic interview, mean.
It is fortunate that it now reaches the public and future generations as a testament to one of the greatest, but more importantly, of the man himself.
During the day Saturday at the St. Regis Hotel in Toronto, I was able to sit down with Hudlin and Winfrey together, as well as separate producer Derik Murray, to learn more about the making of the docu that is actually only the second time Hudlin has worked in the genre (he also did the Clarence documentary Before The Black Godfather). Hudlin actually made his way to TIFF for the premiere even amidst production for next Monday’s Emmy Awards for the third year in a row (he returns at dawn Sunday morning).
Murray launched the idea of sydney and first enlisted the blessing of Poitier and his family, then a few years later Hudlin and Winfrey became deeply involved on the creative side.
“Reggie was contacted and then he called me and asked if I would be interested in producing and, of course, because there is no one I love more on the planet than Sidney Poitier. And i have been a student of him and his work and it was not just a love offering to me it was a love offering to the world to help the world with the hope that the world understands and know it like we do,” said Winfrey, who conducted this interview in 2012, but on the condition of Poitiers that it would only be seen once when aired for a Master Class on her own. She told me that relatively few people saw it back then, at least for the vast number who will now experience it through this documentary.
“It was an honor to receive the call, and I felt immediately protective because it meant so much to me, not just as a filmmaker but as a man, and I wanted it to be told in a good way. way and I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Oprah would be the person I would want to do it with,” Hudlin said. “My gratitude to her and her incredible contributions throughout the process is without limits because his encyclopedic knowledge of its history is incredible.”
Hudlin thanks Winfrey for having the resources to be able to take two days to do this interview and tell the story. Hudlin compares using Poitier’s own voice to tell his life story to Miles Davis in terms of the whole cadence and rhythms of how he told it. It was a godsend for Hudlin as a director to have him.
“We are all his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We are all on his shoulders. He is the Alpha, he is the Big Bang because there is no black cinema without him, because before him what did we have? From the beginning of the motion picture industry, the most derogatory images of black people imaginable, ignorant at best, evil at worst,” Hudlin said.
“Not only that,” Winfrey continued, “he was the foundation of all the doors to open, for every successful black person living today. There would be no me without Sidney Poitier. There wouldn’t be a platform I could be a part of without Sidney Poitier. There wouldn’t have been a Barack Obama without Sidney Poitier. He opened doors we didn’t even know needed to be opened. Doing it with all the grace, elegance and power he did was just part of who he is.
For Hudlin, the biggest challenge was getting it right in a life that has been so turbulent for nearly a century. “Every year of this man’s life, from the circumstances of his birth, is fascinating…. So we had to make some really tough choices. What is this movie about? This is about this man, and the stories we choose to keep or discard all illustrate an unprecedented person,” he said.
So, what is their favorite Poitevin film?
For Winfrey, it’s 1965 A stain of blue. In fact, she watched it recently because for 30 days after his death, she was watching a film from Poitiers to deal with her grief. “I went back and watched that particular one because he always said that was one of the his favorites because it was so revolutionary at the time, and when you think about it, it’s extraordinary. Poitier is in the park with a blind white girl.
For Hudlin, he said it was difficult, but he mentions Buck and the preacher. “Black cowboys. Him, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte playing against type. I mean wow! And those sawed-off shotguns he had on his hip, what’s not to like? he laughed.
Murray told me he was sad that Poitier had never seen this film, but when he showed it to his widow Joanna Shimkus Poitier and her daughters in raw form, there were tears. Shimkus said it was “perfect”. A better review you can’t get than this.
“I just told all the girls that they honor us with their kind words. They felt like we captured the essence of him, and that was our goal. That was our number one intention, that is for the essence of Sidney Poitier to be captured forever in this story of his life that people could see,” Winfrey said. “Really the measure of a man.