Sidney Poitier in “Sidney."

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney." Credit: The New York Times/Redux/Apple TV+/Sam Falk


WHERE Streaming on Apple TV+

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The life of Sidney Poitier comes to the screen in "Sidney," a documentary by Reginald Hudlin ("Marshall") that's streaming on Apple TV+.

Hudlin constructs the film largely around a 2012 interview Oprah Winfrey conducted with the icon, who died earlier this year, and traces his story in what is for the most part a linear approach.

It begins with his earliest years, growing up without electricity on Cat Island in the Bahamas, extends through his ascension to becoming the biggest star in the movie business by the late 1960s, and culminates with the story of a later career defined by a number of compelling paths.

The filmmaker incorporates period footage including clips of Poitier on "The Dick Cavett Show," his acceptance speech for the historic Oscar he won for "Lilies of the Field" in 1964, a behind-the-scenes look at the set of "Buck and the Preacher," Poitier's directorial debut, images from his home life as the father of six daughters, and more.

The documentary is augmented by perspectives from some of the most significant people to follow the trail Poitier so powerfully blazed — including Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and others. It presents a strong sense of how Poitier was both defined by the broader midcentury cultural context in which he emerged, and of the ways in which he irrevocably shaped it.

MY SAY The best thing to be said for "Sidney" is the extent to which it offers a vivid depiction of just how extraordinary of a journey this man lived. Poitier is such a part of the firmament now that there's a real danger of his story being taken for granted.

Throughout the movie, Hudlin keeps returning to this theme. 

Forget everything you know about the man and consider that this person became the biggest movie star around: a son of farmers, who once slept in a public toilet in New York City while working as a dishwasher; who got thrown out of his first audition; who committed himself to only playing parts of strength and dignity at a time when roles for Black people were almost exclusively vicious caricatures.

The documentary begins with Poitier telling the camera about being born two months premature and unlikely to survive his earliest days, and it continues by tracing the never-before-seen combination of otherworldly talent, sheer will, moral fortitude and downright good luck that propelled him to this place.

This is not hagiography. Hudlin does not hide from some of the more difficult parts of the story, including the unease over what Poitier represented to white audiences, as exemplified in on-screen moments such as the famous ending of "The Defiant Ones," in which Poitier's character sacrifices his chance for freedom when he tries to lift Tony Curtis onto a speeding train.

With clarity and purpose, "Sidney" creates a full portrait of its subject and shows us how he became a touchstone for a generation of people who finally saw a reflection of themselves when they went to the movies.

BOTTOM LINE This is a fitting tribute to one of the most consequential cultural figures of the 20th century.

Top Stories

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months