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The story of a 'magnetic' screen legend: Lord Taylor reviews 'Sidney'

Sidney Poitier | Image courtesy of Apple TV+

Lord Taylor of Warwick

Lord Taylor of Warwick

3 min read

The life story of a Black icon told with affection, Oprah Winfrey and Reginald Hudlin’s documentary does not however shy away from the more sensitive areas of Sidney Poitier’s remarkable career

What do you say to a film legend? As a then-vice president of the British Board of Film Classification I was in Hollywood to speak at a film event. Standing right next to me was Sidney Poitier. Our conversation was nearly 20 years ago. But such was the magnetism of the man, I remember it as yesterday. 

Sidney is a documentary about Poitier, who died in January. The director is Reginald Hudlin, and it includes contributions from the Poitier family, Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry, Robert Redford, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Quincy Jones and the film’s producer, Oprah Winfrey.

Sidney spans a career of artistic, political and social significance. Poitier was the first Black man to win an Oscar and the first Black director to make a $100m movie. As Spike Lee says in the documentary: “It’s not easy to represent when you have to represent the entire race.” Poitier’s example was an encouragement to me when I became the first Black British university chancellor and the only Black member of the House of Lords when ennobled in 1996.

I remember Sidney Poitier as soft-spoken and modest. Indeed the highlight of this documentary is when he personally addresses the camera, retelling key moments in his life. Born in poverty to Bahamian tomato farmers, he describes his early days as a dishwasher in New York. After initial rejection as an actor, he learned to read and developed his voice by listening to a radio announcer. He found work in the American Negro Theatre and got a breakthrough movie role in Blackboard Jungle. Then, as they say, the rest is his story.

I remember Sidney Poitier as soft spoken and modest

For me as a Black youth growing up in a largely white British society, Sidney Poitier’s films were more than just entertainment or escapism. There was a nobility and dignity about the way he interpreted his roles… notably in The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and To Sir, with Love. But the pinnacles of his acting career were his Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1964 and an Honorary Oscar in 2002 for his lifetime achievement in film. He was also a highly successful director of films including Buck and the Preacher and Stir Crazy

The documentary is affectionate but does not avoid more sensitive areas of Poitier’s life: his rivalry with “frenemy” Harry Belafonte; his extra-marital affair with co-star Diahann Carroll; and the criticism he dealt with from some in the Black community that he became an “Uncle Tom” in acquiescing to white expectations. For me, the fact that he was a pivotal part of the civil rights movement refuted that accusation. 

When Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, he said that Poitier “does not make movies, but milestones”. In this documentary, Winfrey refers to a line that defines Poitier – when he says in the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, “You think of yourself as a coloured man, I think of myself as a man.” But Sidney Poitier was not only a man, but a gentleman.

Lord Taylor of Warwick is an Independent peer

Producer: Oprah Winfrey
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Broadcaster: Apple TV+

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