The late actor Sidney Poitier was at the height of his Hollywood career when he was accused by black activists and intellectuals of playing stereotypical roles for white audiences as America’s civil rights movement exploded in the 1960s.
Sydney, the new Apple TV+ documentary produced by Oprah Winfrey and featuring interviews with stars ranging from Denzel Washington and Morgan Feeman to Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, sets out why they were wrong.
“The reality is that since the invention of cinema there have been degrading images of black people, and Sidney Poitier single-handedly destroyed those images, film after film,” Reginald Hudlin, director of the documentary that airs this Friday, told AFP.
“He was a warrior for the racial cause. Without him, I wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t have Oprah Winfrey, we wouldn’t have Barack Obama.”
This is one of several discussions in “Sidney,” which features interviews Poitier gave Winfrey years before her death, produced in January 2022 at the age of 94.
The production addresses a subject that can be thorny: the extramarital relationship that Poitier had when he was with his first wife, Juanita Hardy, who is interviewed in the documentary, as well as the actor’s three daughters.
“When I first sat down with the family to talk about the possibility of making this movie, I asked if there was anything that was off limits. I specifically brought that up as an example,” Hudlin said.
“They told me ‘No, no, no, we want to tell the whole truth.’ I appreciated the fact that they weren’t interested in recording a sugar-coated piece.”
But the production also cuts into terrifying moments of the racist violence Poitier suffered in his lifetime.
In 1964, Poitier and fellow actor Harry Belafonte were chased in Mississippi by armed members of the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan while carrying money for a voting rights movement.
Another encounter with the Klan and a white cop who gunned Poitier down as a teenager is recounted as a defining experience in his pioneering career and often-forgotten activism.
“That’s what’s impressive. He never succumbed to bitterness, never let himself be finished off,” Hudlin said. “I kept turning this into strength, into more determination and into more will.”
– ‘There was no precedent’ –
But perhaps the most disputed part of Poitier’s legacy is the remarks that he is too nice or obedient, a kind of “Uncle Tom” to white audiences and Hollywood.
The documentary brings up an article published in 1967 by The New York Times under the title “Why does white America love Sidney Poitier so much?”, which accused the actor of “playing essentially the same role, the antiseptic one-dimensional hero.
The text spoke of a “Sidney Poitier Syndrome”. “A good man in an all-white world, with no wife, girlfriend, or woman to love or kiss, helping a white man solve a white man’s problems.”
Just three years earlier, Poitier had become the first black actor to win an Oscar for “A Voice in the Shadows,” in which he played a nomadic worker who helps a community of nuns, with whom he ends up establishing a bond. .
Other roles, such as the beggar he plays in “Porgy and Bess”, were seen as racist by critics.
According to Hudlin, the attacks “were an inevitable consequence of the work he was doing,” and Poitier, “who knew he would go further,” was more interested in humanizing the black experience.
“It was kept in a larger context,” Hudlin said, noting that oppressed minorities were “suddenly fighting for their freedom” and “trying to understand this in real time, as it happened.”
“I think now we can look at everything with a bigger, historical view and say that those decisions that Sidney Poitier made were correct and helped the greater cause move forward.”
“Sidney” also underscores the revolutionary nature of Poitier’s kiss with white actress Katharine Houghton in “Know Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and the moment he slaps a white Southern aristocrat in “In the Heat of the Night.”
“There was no precedent for who he was and what he was doing,” Hudlin said.