Tuesday 11 October 2022

To Sir, with love: "Sidney"

With the announcement of Sidney Poitier's passing in the first week of January,
Sidney - Reginald Hudlin's overview of the life and work of one of American cinema's most talismanic figures - became both an inevitability and a lock in year-end awards consideration. (It needed making, and if we know anything, it's that Hollywood loves nothing more than celebrating itself.) Hudlin's film - produced by Oprah Winfrey for AppleTV+, but receiving a limited theatrical release alongside its streaming debut - had been in the pipeline for some while, however. Much of it is structured around a to-camera address by Poitier himself, still remarkably well-preserved for a man heading into his nineties, and once more demonstrating the force and coherence of voice that helped make him a star over a half-century ago. To tell the story of Poitier's life, as Hudlin realises, is to reflect upon the recent history of American race relations, and run the gamut from "For Colored Only" signs to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. After a prologue in which Poitier recounts an idyllic-sounding childhood growing up on the predominantly Black island of New Providence in the Bahamas, the Klan make their first appearance around the ten-minute mark; and yet even that proves less chilling than the formative anecdote that follows. The worst thing about it isn't that the young Poitier was harassed at a bus stop by representatives of the Miami PD, nor that a gun was pointed at his head, nor that he was instructed, in no uncertain terms, to walk home without looking back - which could, after all, have been an empty threat issued by someone drunk on their own power. No, the worst thing about it is that these cops actually did follow the trembling boy every step of the way, daring him to defy their command. You can learn a lot about control and discipline from such an episode, but the sorry story also has much to teach us about the extremes to which some will go - and what Poitier had to overcome just to survive, let alone flourish as he did.

Of course, some element of luck and good timing is also apparent in this biography. Poitier arrived on the US mainland as America first began to renegotiate what it was and who it was really for, which enables Hudlin to evoke the jazzy spirit of 1940s Harlem, and set the stereotypes the movies traded in pre-Poitier against the greater realism of the immediate post-War period. One early sign of principled things to come: Poitier turning down a supporting role in Phil Karlson's highly regarded The Phenix City Story, on the grounds the character was scripted to behave in a way he couldn't personally sanction. (As he's heard telling Studs Terkel in a radio interview: "There are some things you have to say no to.") Like any true star, he was beginning to organise the cinema around him; as the late cultural critic Greg Tate observes, "the movies changed the day [Poitier] hit the screen". Poitier had made his debut in 1950's No Way Out, which became the first film his folks back in Nassau had ever seen: encountered from the perspective of an era when the movies seem more ubiquitous than ever, this may be the starkest fact Sidney turns up about where the young actor was coming from. After a while, the film fills with talking heads - and, no doubt thanks to Oprah, celebrity talking heads at that. Yet in its strongest stretches, Sidney demonstrates how effective talking heads can still be if you select interviewees who - like Poitier - actually have something in their heads and the ability to express it. The approach allows Hudlin to construct lively debate around, say, 1958's The Defiant Ones: Halle Berry is gushy, Nelson George far more sceptical, and Morgan Freeman splits the difference. There are aspects of this legacy that aren't yet set in stone, that invite discussion - amusingly, in the case of Spike Lee's passing takedown of 1963's Oscar-baiting Lilies of the Field, which proves almost as funny as Spike Lee's takedown of Green Book

As Sidney segues decisively from mid-century America into the movies mid-century America inspired, it begins to mirror the appeal of HBO's recent cinephile delight The Last Movie Stars: it's a reminder of an era when even the studio films that weren't as enduring as Poitier himself were assembled with craft and care and aimed squarely at adults. (There's some crossover in the shape of 1961's Newman/Poitier-pairing Paris Blues, its reputation surely higher at the end of 2022 than it has been at any time in the last sixty years.) Best known for his youthful adventures in comedy (House Party, Boomerang), Hudlin has fun with the career-long, largely friendly rivalry between Poitier and his contemporary Harry Belafonte, and late on with his subject's mid-career shift into directing crowdpleasers like 1980's Stir Crazy. (Nobody mentions 1990's Bill Cosby vehicle Ghost Dad, which may be for the best.) Yet the filmmaker, too, seems to have absorbed some of Poitier's essential seriousness: Sidney is good on the art of this life, and better still on how that art came to reshape and redefine the world at a critical moment. As authorised legacy product, it can be a touch coy on the actor's personal life, but it works hard to solve the mystery of why this career seemed to tail off at the turn of the 1970s. "Statuesque" (as one correspondent dubs Poitier) suggests a certain inflexibility, and Poitier certainly appears upright and uptight set against Shaft, Superfly and Soul Train, or the thrusting young heroes of Hudlin's New Black Cinema. The film usefully reframes its subject as someone who, with great gentlemanly poise, opened a door for others with vastly differing priorities to come charging through. Even before we get to To Sir with Love - and its attendant, somewhat unexpected Lulu testimony - Sidney has established Poitier as an educator in an industry that was increasingly being given over to children. Contrast the clip of the actor's interactions with Denzel Washington at the landmark Academy Awards of 2002 with your recollections of Oscar night 2022, and then ask yourself this: a half-century from now, will anybody trouble to make a similar film about Kevin Hart?

Sidney is now playing in selected London cinemas, and available to stream via AppleTV+. 

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