The great acting legend Sidney Poitier died in January at the age of 94. He didn’t live to see the exciting new documentary about his life and career, sydney, which had its world premiere on Saturday night at the Toronto Film Festival. However, he had her blessing, and that of her family, for a film that has been leaking and in development and then production for five years. And while Poitier himself didn’t get to see the finished work, everyone else will from September 23 when it begins streaming on Apple TV+ and showing in select theaters.
With Oprah Winfrey on board as producer (with Derik Murray) and Reginald Hudlin as director, Poitier gets an extraordinarily comprehensive and expansive view of his life told linearly and narrated by himself through the use of eight hours of conducted interviews. in 2012 with Winfrey, as well as other archival interviews. This is the right way to tell this story, because it’s quite a journey from start to finish for a man who almost died as a baby, spent his early years in the mostly black community of the Bahamas, had a terrifying encounter with the Klan. , he learned English primarily by watching news anchors when he eventually made it to Miami and then to New York City, where he worked odd jobs and landed that windfall as an understudy that left just as a big Broadway producer was in the house. .
It all eventually led to a film debut in the 1950s. No exit, movies like Blackboard Jungle, something of value Y the challengers, the landmark film that earned him his first Oscar nomination. He would achieve Broadway stardom in One raisin in the sun, reprising the role in the 1960 film version, and then just three years later he became the first black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar for 1963. Field Lilies. It was that acceptance speech that summed up his life up to that point, “It has been a very long journey to this point…” and it is fitting that this lengthy account of his life taking He accompanies us on that journey with none other than Poitier as narrator, and in that sense is almost an extension of the many books he has written about his life.
Of course, after Oscar there is much more, including his work for civil rights; the remarkable achievement of reaching number 1 at the box office in 1967 when he had three movies: In the heat of the night, guess who’s coming to dinner, Y To the gentleman, with love; plus his two marriages and six daughters; her close relationship with Harry Belafonte; her eventual emergence as a powerful figure behind the scenes in the formation of First Artists with Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and Steve McQueen; as well as his work behind the camera and becoming the most successful black director to that point with Go mad win over $100 million.
A particularly convincing sequence in sydney is the story behind the famous slap in the heat of the night where, as Detective Virgil Tibbs, he is slapped by a white man and then slapped back, a scene that always draws cheers from the audience. Another is the importance of showing the Black Cowboy, rarely seen on screen until then, in buck and the preacher which also starred Belafonte and directed by Poitier. There’s so much more, and the film is packed with vintage and archival footage dating back nearly 100 years, plus a few select movie clips. The only downside is that within two hours much of their film work had to be shelved for time, but Jesse James Miller’s script keeps their focus on the larger story of Hudlin and Winfrey, with such generous use of his historic interview, to say.
It is fortunate that it now reaches the public and future generations as a testimony to one of the greats, but more importantly, to the man himself.
During the day on 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 documentary, which is really only the second. time Hudlin has worked on the genre (he also made the documentary Clarence Avant the black godfather). In fact, Hudlin flew into TIFF for the premiere even in the middle of next Monday’s Emmy Awards production for the third year in a row (he flies back at sunrise on Sunday morning).
Murray started the idea of sydney and got the blessing of Poitier and his family initially, and then a couple of years later Hudlin and Winfrey got 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 this was not just a love offering to me, it was a love offering to the world to help the world in the hope that the world would come to understand and know him as we do.” said Winfrey, who had conducted that interview in 2012 but on the condition from Poitier that it would only be seen once when it aired for a masterclass on her OWN network. He told me that comparatively not many people saw it then, at least the large number of people who will now be able to experience it thanks to this documentary.
“It was an honor to receive the call and I immediately felt protective because he meant a lot to me, not only as a filmmaker but as a man, and I wanted it to be told in the right way and I knew it, beyond a shadow. I have no 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 are limitless because her encyclopedic knowledge of her story is incredible.”
Hudlin credits Winfrey with having the resources to be able to take two days to do that interview and tell the story. Hudlin compares Poitier’s use of his own voice in telling his life story to Miles Davis in terms of all the 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. It is the Alpha, it is the Big Bang because without it there is no film noir, because before it, what did we have? Since the beginning of the movie 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 for every door to open, for every successful black person alive today. I wouldn’t exist without Sidney Poitier. There wouldn’t be a platform that I was a part of without Sidney Poitier. There would have been no Barack Obama without Sidney Poitier. He kicked open doors that we didn’t even know needed kicking. Doing it with all the grace and elegance and power that he did was just part of who he is.”
For Hudlin, the biggest challenge was getting things right in a hectic life spanning nearly a century. “Every year in this man’s life from the circumstances of his birth onward is fascinating…. So we had to make some really tough decisions. What is this movie about? It is about this man, and the stories we choose to keep or discard illustrate an unprecedented person,” she said.
So what is your favorite Poitier movie?
For Winfrey it’s 1965 A patch of blue. In fact, he watched it recently because for 30 days after his death, he was watching a Poitier movie as a way to deal with his grief. “I went back and looked at that particular one because he always said it was one of its favorites because it was very innovative 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 mentions Buck and the preacher. “Black jeans. Him, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte playing against the guy. I mean wow! And those sawed-off shotguns he had on his hip, what’s not to like?” he laughed.
Murray told me that he is sad that Poitier never got to see this film, but when he showed it to his widow Joanna Shimkus Poitier and their daughters in a preview version, tears welled up in his eyes. Shimkus said it was “perfect”. A better review you can’t get than that.
“I just told all the daughters to honor us with your kind words. They felt that we captured their essence, and that was our goal. That was our number one intention, that the essence of Sidney Poitier is forever filmed in this life story of him that people can see,” Winfrey said. “Truly the measure of a man.”