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Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin still remembers meeting Sidney Poitier at a Hollywood party in the late 1980s.
Hudlin, then in his twenties, had yet to produce or direct a movie, though he had made some shorts. He was at the party with his older brother, Warrington, also a filmmaker, and their father, a teacher.
“And Sidney Poitier was at the party,” Hudlin recalls. “So I said: Dad, I’m going to introduce you to Sidney Poitier.” He found the superstar, and brought him face to face with his father
“And Sidney looks at my father and he says: Look at you. You’re more handsome than me. You’re richer than me. And you have these sons. I hate you.”
He was kidding of course. Hudlin’s dad floated away in a happy daze. “And it blew me away! I said: Wow, that’s a star. That’s how you do it. Right? Not only is he generous with his time but in, I dunno, two minutes he made a moment that I would never, ever forget.”
Hudlin continues: “So when I got the opportunity to make this movie, I said: Well, I owe him just for that alone. Forget everything else he’s done. I have to do this.”
This movie is simply called Sidney. Produced by Oprah Winfrey, directed by Hudlin and featuring interviews with Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Robert Redford, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Barbra Streisand and more, it explores the life and work of the actor, producer and director who died this year at the age of 94.
Sidney had its world premiere Sept. 10 at Roy Thomson Hall as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, with two additional screenings before streaming on AppleTV+.
The interviews that make up much of the film were shot over a two-year period, with a central sit-down with Poitier himself filmed years before that, but never seen until now. “I was not expected to live,” Poitier says dramatically at the outset, describing his premature birth to poor tomato farmers, and his early childhood years on tiny Cat Island in the Bahamas.
When he moved to New York City in 1943 he found his first acting jobs through the American Negro Theatre Company. But it was in motion pictures that he gained his greatest fame, beginning with a role in 1950’s No Way Out as a doctor who is blamed by a white man for the death of his brother, who had been wounded during an attempted robbery.
In 1959 Poitier became the first Black man to be nominated for best actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for The Defiant Ones. In 1964 he was the first Black man to win that prize, for Lilies of the Field, and the only one until Denzel Washington won for Training Day, 38 years later.
Hudlin certainly counts himself as a fan, but it goes deeper than that. “Sidney Poitier was integral to my entire life,” he says. “I mean, he was not just an actor and a filmmaker. He was the definition of manhood. Besides my father, he was what you’re supposed to be. You’re supposed to be strong and intelligent and moral and courageous. And he represented all those things through the years.”
Hudlin remember being 10 years old when Buck and the Preacher came out in 1972 — “old enough to go to the movies by myself,” at least in those days. It was Poitier’s directing debut, a western in which he also starred opposite his lifelong friend Harry Belafonte.
“So I took the bus downtown in St. Louis and saw the movie. I think I probably stayed all day, and just watched it over and over again. And it was the opening weekend and they had posters. I remember getting a Buck and the Preacher poster and being very proud of that.”
Poitier may have made great inroads as a Black leading man when such a thing was almost unheard of, but not everyone was a fan. An op-ed by Clifford Mason in The New York Times in 1967 captured the mood of some Black academics and filmgoers who felt that Poitier was sticking too much to a noble character that white audiences could easily root for. Some used the term Uncle Tom. Mason called him a showcase n-word.
The movie doesn’t shy away from this controversy. And neither does Hudlin. But he notes that Poitier helped fuel a revolution in Black thinking and Black pride that couldn’t help but overtake him. It’s tough to stay at the forefront forever.
“The moment that he created through his work was so big and was happening so fast that by the time he’s making Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (in 1967) it had gone to another place. But it was because of him. And I think that’s the perspective that we get looking at things historically.”
It was a shift he’s certain Poitier himself understood even as it was happening. “And that’s the kind of amazing foresight that is such an integral part of who he was. How did this guy with no role models — nothing like him ever existed before –— how did he know the right thing to do? How did he always make the right choice at every turn for such a long period?”
Hudlin thinks he knows the answer. He’s probably known since that long-ago meeting between his father and his hero. “He was empathetic and sensitive and he just knew where things were. He read the room. And he adjusted, you know, once he realized he didn’t have to carry everybody on his back, then he could switch and he could play an Everyman like he did in Uptown Saturday Night. Because he didn’t have to be a Superman all the time.”
Sidney debuted on the AppleTV+ streaming service on Sept. 23.