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In Sidney, the documentary about the life and career of Sidney Poitier, the actor sits in front of a minimal gray background and addresses the camera directly. The footage gives the effect that Poitier is recounting his life story directly to the audience and is particularly affecting given that the screen legend passed away at the beginning of this year at the age of 94.
The interview itself is several years old and was captured by Oprah Winfrey, who acts as an executive producer on the movie. For Sidney director Reginald Hudlin, who signed on to the project not knowing the footage where Poitier talks about his birth story, upbringing in the Bahamas and entry into entertainment in New York City existed, the access was near miraculous. He says, “We were always like, ‘We can do this.’ But then we like, ‘Oh, we can really do this.’”
Sidney is meant to take the full measure of his life. Talking heads include everyone from Denzel Washington to Barbra Streisand, as well as Poitier’s children and both of his wives, Juanita Hardy and Joanna Shimkus.
Ahead of the doc’s TIFF debut and a Sept. 23 bow on AppleTV+, Hudlin talked to THR about documenting Poitier’s political activism, friendship with Harry Belafonte, and not wanting to eulogize: “Fortunately, Sidney was given his flowers when he was alive.”
What was your personal relationship with Sidney Poitier?
When I signed on for this, I started thinking about what Sidney Poitier means to me and I realized he’s such an integral part of my cultural DNA. He’s sort of inseparable from my definition of mad, of Black manhood, of movies. He’s just always been there. Watching him and everything he did is something I have done my whole life. It was such a part of my life that it was not even a conscious thought. It was like breathing air.
How did Sidney, the movie, come along?
I got contacted by Network Entertainment who had done a deal with the Poitier family to do the first-ever documentary on the life of Sidney Poitier. We had a lunch with the family, and I was pretty straightforward. I talked about my deep love for Sidney Poitier but I said, “Look, we can’t just make a puff piece. We have to really tell his whole life.” And I asked about some things that I thought might be sensitive areas and they said, “No, no, no. Tell the whole story.”
Did you begin production immediately?
We were shopping it around first and it wasn’t like people were immediately jumping on board the train, I have to say. In retrospect you go, “Really?” So, we said let’s call Oprah Winfrey because she loves Poitier. So, we said, “Let’s call Oprah.” She’s such a Sidney Poitier historian. Oprah was immediately like, “Of course.” She knows everything about his life and, more importantly, she had seven hours of interview footage of Sidney, where he’s talking directly to the camera and telling his story.
So, you were heading into the doc thinking it would largely be archival.
There were other ways to include his voice. I knew we had the audiobooks, but that [footage] changed everything.
Was this footage just lying around?
She has had Sidney on her show several times and she has all kinds of shows — I mean, she has her own network. And she does what I would do, which is to say, “Hey, I’ve got a great person here. Let’s get this, now.”
Was the plan always to document the entirety of his life or did you ever consider focusing on a specific window of time?
There are these people who live very long lives and every year their life is consequential. There is no year where it’s like, same old same old. No, they made history every year. So, we had to tell the whole story. Sidney’s birth is so consequential; the circumstance under which he is born is incredible and his teenage years are incredible. The issue is what do you leave out. There’s a feeling that you can get when you do this, where you think I have got to tell it all. We’re living in a post-literate society. Even though he’s written two autobiographies, this movie 30 or 50 years from now may be the primary text. So you think, if we don’t put it all in, then the culture loses this information. There’s no documentation that Sidney Poitier exists until he was near adult. It’s not like there are baby pictures of him. He lived in a world where there was no electricity, there was no running water. When he gets to New York, he finally enters the public record. So, the testimony by himself and from his family is crucial.
Why was it important to make Sidney Poitier’s relationship with Harry Belafonte a large part of the doc?
It’s amazing how similar they are, but there are these really key differences in perspectives that they helped shape each other. It’s such a fascinating relationship. Two guys, each of them individually, had big impacts on American history and world culture. Harry talks about the first time he saw Sidney when he came in to audition for this theater company in Harlem. He walks in, sits down, and he sees this guy on the other side of the room and he’s giving him the “Harry eyeball” going this guy is gonna be a problem and he’s gonna be a problem forever. There was an instinctive and sense of competition that just shaped their entire lives. Harry Belafonte was probably [Sindey’s] longest relationship. These guys met at the beginning of their careers and they stayed close to the very end. That is a brotherhood that is crucial to understanding the man.
What did you want younger audiences, who may only know Sidney Poitier from his screenwork, to know about his political activism?
You can’t understand him unless you understand the political side of him. So much of what he did on screen was so inherently and sometimes explicitly political. They were the other front of the civil rights movement. Entertainment played such an integral role and him singlehandedly destroying stereotypes that existed from the invention of the motion picture camera was incredible. When you think about the damage done from Birth of a Nation and the decades of malicious stereotyping of Black people and Sidney Poitier comes along with the dignity, elegance, intelligence, intensity that destroys all of that imagery, movie after movie after movie. And that reshapes the world and how they see Black men. The challenge of doing that is the revolution you are creating as an actor takes fire to the point where the movement is following you and then it get ahead of you. Then they go you’re now radical enough, and it’s like: I was the most radical six months ago. The trick of creating a revolutionary art is that it takes 12 to 16 months to make a movie, but when you’re at an inflection point in history by the time you’re done it’s like you are either behind or ahead or right on time. In the course of his career, he was all of those things.
Where were you in production when he passed?
We were far down the line. We’re still finishing the last round of interviews but we were near done.
Did his passing affect the filmmaking?
I was very glad that we had done the majority of the interviews before he passed away because people didn’t have the burden of giving a eulogy. He was talked about in the present tense, not the past.
Did you ever consider adding an epilogue to the movie to include the tributes after his passing?
It didn’t seem to be relevant. Fortunately, Sidney was given his flowers when he was alive. For me, you know, the moment where Denzel wins his Oscar and he holds it out to Sidney who holds his [honorary Oscar] back. Or at the AFI honor to hear Harry talk about Sidney and their whole life together that brought them to that moment. For me, there was nothing that happened after his actual passing that top those moments.
How did your understanding of Sidney change throughout production?
The thing about making a movie like this is that it is transformative. To be walking inside the life of a great man like this you can’t help but take it personal. I try to be the best artist I can, the best father I can, but that bar that Sidney has set for us has you going: I can do better. We’ve gone too far to not go further. That’s what Sidney has inspired me to do.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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