When director Reginald Hudlin finished his first documentary “The Black Godfather,” which profiled one of the most influential figures in Black Hollywood whom the general public was mostly unaware of, he was unsure if he could ever find a project that would top the experience.
“I just said, ‘Well, I guess it’ll be a while before I find a subject that could follow Clarence Avant,’” the filmmaker recalled during a recent phone interview with IndieWire. “And then you get a call saying ‘Sidney Poitier,’ you go ‘Whoa, there you have it.’”
Before Hudlin officially said yes to directing “Sidney,” his Apple TV+ documentary about the groundbreaking movie star who was the first Black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor — and which has garnered three Critics Choice Documentary Awards nominations, including Best Feature and Best Director — he connected with Poitier’s family through the producers at Network Entertainment. “I just wanted to make sure that we could tell his whole story, and there wasn’t any kind of, ‘Oh, don’t go there,’ which there was not,” explained the director. “So I said, ‘OK then, we can really tell the movie as it should be told.’”
Still, the last element he needed to do so was executive producer Oprah Winfrey. The entire reason Poitier himself appears in the film is due to the fact that the former talk show host allowed the film to use any footage her network OWN had shot of the actor for his 2012 episode of “Oprah’s Master Class,” footage that amounted to two days of interviews with the icon.
“[Winfrey] was able to do that because she was a Sidney expert. She talked to Sidney every Sunday for years. So her encyclopedic knowledge of his life, big and small incidents, was invaluable in the process,” Hudlin said. Though Poitier had originally made a deal with the mogul to only broadcast his episode once before shelving it, he and the family later agreed as well to let Hudlin have access to it to make “Sidney.”
Much like its subject, the film transcends the traditional Hollywood narrative seen in many recent biographical documentaries, and dives into Poitier’s greater sociopolitical influence. “The challenge with a person like Sidney Poitier is that he lived a very long time. And every year of his life was very consequential from the circumstances of his birth, where he defeats death, on,” said Hudlin. “He was an activist both on and off screen. And when he made choices about movies, there was always a political aspect to those choices. This is a man who single-handedly took on all the corrosive, toxic racial stereotyping that Hollywood had done almost from the beginning — from ‘Birth of a Nation’ on — and he single-handedly is smashing all of this racist imagery with his intelligence, with his class, with his courage, with his moral compass.”
One particularly poignant correlation the film makes is that the three films that make Poitier the biggest box office draw of 1967 and 1968 — “To Sir, with Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — were released within the three years between the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
“These three movies perfectly capture this inflection point in popular culture, and he’s making moves that are right where the culture is. And finally, and this happens to anybody, the culture starts moving ahead of the timeline it takes to make a movie. By the time that ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ is out, now the goalposts have moved, and there’s a radical movement that’s now questioning where everybody was only a few years ago,” said Hudlin.
Poitier’s co-star in the film Katharine Houghton even says in “Sidney” that the actor told her on set, “‘Yeah, this is probably my last movie,’ because the culture shifted, which meant Sidney was completely aware of what was happening. He was totally plugged in,” added the director.
“When we look back at it historically, you just go ‘Well, Sidney was doing exactly what we as a people needed him to do.’ He was the leader in the war on the pop culture level by doing what he was doing,” said Hudlin. Once Poitier saw the shift away from “respectable” roles, Hudlin explained, “he knew well, ‘What I’m doing, we don’t need that anymore.’ So what he did was reinvent himself. He says ‘If I don’t have to be that anymore, then I can be something else. I can become a director. I can play an everyman character instead of having to play the perfect character.’ So when you see ‘Uptown Saturday Night,’ that’s a guy free of his previous obligation, so he can expand in a new direction.”
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Although Poitier’s achievements are a well-documented series of firsts, “Sidney” puts them into a historical context for its younger audience, showing just how difficult at the time it was to achieve the heights the icon reached.
“You have to tell the story for each generation,” said Hudlin, citing his admiration for The Beatles’ ability to self-mythologize enough to where even children know who John Lennon is. “That’s why I wanted to make the movie. So that the next generation, my kids, are even aware that, ‘This guy, without him, your dad doesn’t exist. Oprah Winfrey doesn’t exist. Barack Obama doesn’t exist. And if you’re interested, you should see these movies, because they’re amazing movies.’ They’re amazing cinematically, but they’re also important parts of Black history because they changed history.”
Hudlin recalled a conversation with John Boyega, asking the 30-year-old actor who Sidney Poitier was to him: “And he said, ‘He’s the first Avenger.’ There’s no better line than that. That’s the ‘Boom, drop the mic’ moment. That’s a perfect summation of who Sidney Poitier is.”
“Sidney” is now streaming on Apple TV+.