WHEN Barack Obama presented Sidney Poitier with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, he noted: “It’s been said that Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones. Milestones of artistic excellence, milestones of America’s progress.”
This was no exaggeration. Poitier, who died in January aged 94, enjoyed a career that was practically measured in milestones. First black man to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar (The Defiant Ones, 1958). First black man to win it (Lilies of the Field, 1963).
First black man to be named the world’s top box-office attraction (1967). First black director to helm a $100m hit, the 1980 comedy Stir Crazy.
There was one more significant first: Virgil Tibbs, the Philadelphia detective Poitier played in In the Heat of the Night, became the first black movie character to slap a racist white character across the face, in retaliation for being slapped first.
In Reginald Hudlin’s warm and hugely engaging documentary Sidney (Apple TV+), contributors including Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Quincy Jones, Morgan Freeman and Oprah Winfrey (the film’s producer) talk about how this one moment electrified African-Americans, who were tired of seeing themselves portrayed on screen as either servile and lazy, or grotesque, bug-eyed buffoons there to provide comic relief.
But by the early 70s, the milestones had become more like millstones around Poitier’s neck. Films such as Super Fly and Shaft, featuring Richard Roundtree as the tough, supercool private eye who doesn’t wait to be slapped by a white man before slapping back, suddenly made Poitier seem passé and even passive.
Leading black cultural figures accused him of selling out by making films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and To Sir, With Love to please the white audience by reflecting their idea of what a black man should be: a virtual saint, dignified, respectful, self-sacrificing and safe for white folks to trust, to embrace – to even let marry their daughters.
His most vicious critics labelled him an “Uncle Tom”, and much worse besides.
In an excoriating 1967 New York Times article, which you can find online, headlined ‘Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?’, Clifford Mason writes: “In all of these films he has been a showcase n***er, who is given a clean suit and a complete purity of motivation so that, like a mistreated puppy, he has all the sympathy on his side.”
The criticism hurt Poitier deeply, says his Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner co-star Katharine Houghton. As the documentary does a fine job of proving, it was cruel and deeply, deeply unfair.
Poitier was breaking down racial barriers before the civil rights movement had fully coalesced. In the 50s and 60s, he worked hard, often in tandem with his best friend Harry Belafonte, who’s 95 now and appears only in archive interviews, for the cause, sometimes at great personal risk.
For the best part of two decades he was the only black A-list movie star around, and a manifestation of all the hopes and dreams of young black people hoping to make a career in acting. Oprah Winfrey calls him “a race soldier leading the army for everyone else”.
“He was given big shoulders, but he had to carry a lot of weight,” says Denzel Washington.
The gallery of contributors, which also includes Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Lulu, Poitier’s widow Joanna Shimkus, his first wife Juanita Hardy and his daughters from both marriages, is excellent, as is the archive footage.
But the real jewel in the documentary’s crown is Poitier himself, interviewed shortly before his death, the mellifluous voice still intact.
He’s a fantastic storyteller, looking straight at the camera as he describes growing up on Cat Island in the Bahamas, his astonishment the first time he saw a car and a mirror in Nassau, and his move to Miami, where he had his first taste of racist cops and the Ku Klux Klan.
There are some odd omissions. He talks about the lengthy affair with Diahann Carroll that ended his first marriage, but never touches on the pain it must have caused his wife and kids.
The hit comedies he directed are only skimmed over – although the fact that several of them starred Bill Cosby might be a factor.