When Sidney Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, Barack Obama succinctly famous that the actor “doesn’t make motion pictures, however milestones”. He was all the time a gifted actor — blessed with film star appears, pure charisma, and a knack for choosing the proper position — however greater than that, he was a groundbreaking determine within the civil rights motion, a cultural pressure that made him an agent for change in a quickly altering time.
That’s the dichotomy that Reginald Hudlin’s eminently watchable documentary appears to discover: the profession as actor, producer and director, and the incalculable civil rights legacy it left. A powerful conveyor belt of A-listers — Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Halle Berry, and Morgan Freeman amongst them — line as much as inform the story, however maybe most compelling is the testimony from the person himself, with interviews filmed shortly earlier than his demise in January 2022.
As you would possibly count on, Poitier is a wonderful storyteller. His voice may need grown gentler and quieter with age, however right here he retains that commanding, mellifluous tone — an accent which, as he explains within the movie, was self-taught from listening to radio announcers. Born two months untimely to Afro-Bahamian tomato farmers, he reels off charming anecdotes of his none-more-humble beginnings, resembling the primary time he noticed a automobile, or his bemusement at driving the New York subway for the primary time.
Extra considerably, he remembers the primary time he noticed his personal reflection. “I didn’t know what a mirror was,” he explains fastidiously, wanting proper down the lens. “Do you hear me?” he asks, rhetorically. It locations his revolutionary profession into sharper perspective: having grown up in a Black-majority Caribbean neighborhood, American-style racism was an alienating idea, and his youthful encounters with the Ku Klux Klan, amongst different injustices, set him on a particular path.
Because the movie diligently explains, Poitier explicitly averted subservient roles and actively sought characters which had energy and company.
Hudlin’s movie follows a straightforwardly linear route in its telling of that journey, with archive clips and speaking heads taking us there. There are few surprises for many who know the story. However it’s such a consequential life, in each the historical past of cinema and simply historical past generally, that no gildings are crucial. Poitier was a number one man at a time when that was just about unthinkable within the segregation period; Black actors have been largely relegated to discriminatory comedian reduction. Because the movie diligently explains, Poitier explicitly averted subservient roles and actively sought characters which had energy and company. His work schooled white audiences, thrilled Black audiences, and fairly actually modified the sport.
The movie is made “in shut collaboration with the Poitier household”, which all the time dangers sending issues down the hagiography route. However in equity, the movie doesn’t shirk from the low factors: his extramarital affair along with his co-star Diahann Carroll, his sometimes testy rivalry with frenemy Harry Belafonte, or the later criticism he fielded from the Black neighborhood that he acquiesced to the “Uncle Tom” trope.
Finally, the movie involves a conclusion that appears arduous to keep away from: that Poitier was a terrific actor, a nice director (Stir Loopy stays among the many highest-grossing movies ever made by a Black filmmaker), a real historical past maker, and a basically first rate man. There’s a line from Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner that one of many speaking heads, Oprah Winfrey (who additionally serves as a producer) marks out. It’s a line, she argues, that defines Sidney Poitier: “You consider your self as a colored man,” Poitier says within the movie. “I consider myself as a person.”