A Screen Legend’s Life Too Big to Capture – Rolling Stone

  • 5 min read
  • Sep 24, 2022

A Screen Legend’s Life Too Big to Capture – Rolling Stone

He was ours The first black star, in the special and classic sense of that term. Other black actors had appeared in popular Hollywood films, winning Academy Awards for their work even before Sidney Poitier’s success (only one—Hattie McDaniel—and only once, in 1939, but still). . And other black filmmakers had worked in other corners of the industry, working behind and in front of the camera, long before Poitier made his way to the United States from the Bahamas in 1942. , black film houses; There was a long tradition of vaudeville and international celebrities such as Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, and a thriving performing arts circuit that overlapped with many black actors and the paths of many black actors trying to make it as legitimate stage actors. , determined too much. Some of these artists even earned a good income.


However, because of its improbability and symbolic importance, that date is overshadowed by a remarkable year in Sidney Poitier’s career – 1967 – in which the actor appeared, at high prices, in three big and highly profitable Hollywood films: Guess who’s coming to dinnerWith Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. To Sir, with love; And In the heat of the nightwhich won the best film the following year. These films were not Poitier’s first box office successes, nor were they his first with Hollywood’s highest elite. Blackboard forest For example, it was an international success in 1955, and Poitier already had a historic Oscar in hand for his performance in the film. field lilies. What stands out about the record breaking triple in 1967 is that Poitier Lotterynot just lead – that he became the reason so many Americans and others, black and white, were eager to buy tickets.

This, just three years after the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. Just one year before the assassination of Martin Luther King. Poitiers was something people could agree on in a turbulent and unfavorable period. Obviously not all—not, say, the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan members who chased Poitier and Harry Belafonte on a fateful trip on behalf of Southern activists. Nor probably the McCarthy renegades who tried to use Poitier’s admiration for the legendary Robeson, a brave sympathizer with socialist movements abroad, against him. Not everyone is rooting for Sidney Poitier.

And Reginald Hudlin’s new documentary about the life and times of this actor. Sidney, does not argue otherwise. (The movie is now streaming on Apple Plus). But a documentary of this genre—a career and life retrospective—tends to address Poitier’s indisputable ability to rise above such contrasts. It’s a Poitier-esque documentary that didn’t pay attention to the villains, even if it took them seriously. And he could do it! Because, well, here he is: his eminence is apparently past ignorance.

Although it will be released posthumously in January 2022, Sidney It has the advantage of being able to show a live subject. Poitier himself gave interviews and in addition, the film has narrations from his memories. Its guest list is also stacked. There are Oscar-winning black actors whose work was made possible by the advances of Poitier (Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Louis Guest Jr., Halle Berry) and other legendary black actors (Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Lenny Kravitz, Spike Lee). and white contemporaries (Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand), many of whom speak of Poitier in personal terms. Some of our great cultural critics (the late Greg Tate, Nelson George, Poitier biographer Aram Godsouzian) are also featured, as well as members of Poitier’s family, activists who stood by him during the civil rights era, and archival interviews. Belafonte, Poitier’s closest friend and ally.


The result is what you’d expect from an actor whose story is actually stranger and more vibrant than the mythology lets on: it’s good, but it can’t always get its hands dirty. An hour and a half into its two-hour running time, we’re still in 1968, flying through social history that’s always intertwined with personal history. This negative point is understandable Sidney, which is ultimately an attempt to honor Poitier’s career, acknowledging personal flaws (Poitier’s first wife, Juanita Hardy, recounts the moment she confronted Poitier about his affair with Diane Carroll) and controversies (such as having to face the harsh criticism of black revolutionary activists and public intellectuals like James Baldwin) while being careful to place them in the larger, triumphant arc of a man who was truly great—a talent for a once-in-a-lifetime daunting task. was in charge A black presence in Hollywood since the dark ages, and who never complained.

The difficulty of making a documentary about the life of Sidney Poitier is partly that he was an icon, as much as he knew and tried to live his life by it. The greater difficulty is only the result of this life itself: it is very interesting. It gets too attached to it. You could tell an entire story about the fate of black stage and film actors in the 20th century using Poitiers as your primary case. You can find everything from minstrelsy to Harlem’s Black American Theater (where Poitier first started after moving to New York as a teenager), to Hollywood and social activism, to the knotty politics and spontaneity of movie stars. Black from Hattie to Sidney to abuse forward – all the stories that can emerge from the thick trunk of Poitier’s career. You can read a whole story about race as Poitier experienced it, on Cat Island and in Nassau, where the world was a black majority, and then came to America, where he walked the area at age 14. Attracted the big. the front door of a white person’s house, simply because he didn’t know what it meant to a black citizen to be somehow smaller. This is an American perception. Poitier—as he always said, recounting these anecdotes over the years—did not grow up with American imaginations.

Sidney, which goes basically chronologically, touches on all of the above, but none too deeply. how can That doesn’t excuse how much Hudlin’s documentary talks about films like 1969. The missing man, in which Poitier, playing a struggling black activist, tries to come to terms with his reputation as a very quiet icon, incompatible with the black political rage of his time. The film appears, but only as a sequel to Poitier’s relationship with his co-star and wife Joanna Shimkos. You have no idea what a curiosity this movie was, which is a shame, because most people don’t even know it exists, and because of the constant stream of advancements Sidney The actor’s life could use a few more obstacles like this, moments that feel more like question marks than precise historical certainties.

Sidney Works as a tribute or beginner course. The more probing questions about Poitier’s “meaning,” the impossibility of his position, the way he served as a yardstick for evaluating black politics over the decades—these are bigger problems and largely beyond this film. They are also some of the most urgent questions we can ask about Poitier’s career. Adair Lord declared that “the master’s tool will never destroy the master’s house”. It would be easy to say that Poitier’s legacy is proof of this or vice versa. The reality is much more complicated. This fact is beyond this movie.

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