“Frozen in Time”

Paula J. Massood (Brooklyn College, CUNY)

Sidney Poitier’s legacy as a leading man—strong, intelligent, handsome, and unapologetically Black—is widely recognized. Reginald Hudlin’s Sidney (2022) further enshrines the actor by placing him on a pedestal made of respectability and representational politics. Hudlin’s documentary writes Poitier’s history as a leading man, both on and off the screen. Funded by Oprah’s Harpo Productions, the film features one of Poitier’s last on-screen appearances, along with interviews with Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Spike Lee, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, and Oprah, among other A-list stars. Arranged in a conventional talking head format (both his and theirs) and visually supplemented by archival footage, the film tells a somewhat limited version of Poitier’s life that forges a narrative of exceptionalism, from illiterate island boy and son of tomato farmers to Academy Award winner and Civil Rights leader.

Hudlin—a well-respected fiction film director and producer—enlists many of Poitier’s family and friends to construct a picture of a man, actor, friend, father, and husband. Each of the interviews are set in an imposing space, a background that speaks to the film’s themes of grandeur. The interviews are paired with supporting footage (fiction and nonfiction) that illustrates different stages in the actor’s life—in the Bahamas, Miami, Harlem, and Hollywood—while also tracing American race politics at a pivotal time for the Civil Rights movement. Sidney is structured chronologically, with much of its content anchored by a historical walk-through of Poitier’s films, from his first major screen performance in No Way Out (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1950) to his later career as a director of films such as Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). Along the way, Sidney explores Poitier’s decades-long relationship with Harry Belafonte, a close friend and sometime political and professional nemesis. Overall, the film is polished and conventional, reflecting not only the actor’s characteristics and sensibilities, but those of Hudlin and Oprah, who served as the film’s producer. And yet, its aesthetics seem frozen in time, with the effect that Poitier seems frozen as well.

Two seated Black men
Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte

The film focuses on three areas of Poitier’s life; first, on his family, from his childhood, his marriage to Juanita Hardy and then Joanna Shimkus, and the growth of the Poitier family with the addition of five daughters—Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, Gina, Anika, and Sydney— who appear in the film along with Hardy and Shimkus. It also gestures to, with the help of an outspoken Lenny Kravitz, the actor’s almost decade-long affair with Diahann Carroll. This latter narrative, however, is not pursued, perhaps because it mars the sheen of respectability constructed by the film.

The second narrative arc focuses on Poitier’s stage and screen work, covering his first foray into theater with the American Negro Theater in the forties, his first leading role in No Way Out, and his directing work, a career shift that exposed his talent behind the camera along with his penchant for comedy. This narrative, much like that of Poitier’s personal life, focuses on the role model he was for a generation of African American performers (and here many of the interviews, such as those by Oprah, Denzel Washington, and Halle Berry, stress his influence), despite enduring ongoing industrial racism, political witch hunts, and criticism from within the Black community once his cinematic image was seen as out of step with the shifting political times.

Woven throughout these narratives is the third, and perhaps the most important one: the history of American race relations and politics between the forties and the seventies, a time that encompassed Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, McCarthyism, the Black Power movement, and urban unrest sparked in part by the assassinations of JFK, MLK, RLK, and Malcolm X. From the very beginning of the film, Poitier positions himself within this historical context through stories of encountering white people for the first time upon leaving his parents’ rural farm in the Bahamas. It wasn’t until Poitier reached Miami that he felt the full brunt of American racism, however, with one experience so bad that it had him fleeing the Klan for stepping outside his “place” as a delivery boy with the temerity of ringing the front doorbell rather than the back. Such a refusal to accept racial borders is what defined Poitier’s stage and screen career, from his Dr. Luther Brooks in No Way Out to Dr. John Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967). He projected an image that was always respectable, gracious, and talented even when playing an itinerant handyman in Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, 1963), the role that earned him an Oscar. Poitier was what Black America looked up to, until politics changed and his chosen, often assimilationist roles did not fit into a post-Civil Rights climate marked by assassinations, urban rebellions, and broken promises.

In Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016), Michael Boyce Gillespie argues against an approach to Black film that proscribes a “representational ideal,” suggesting that expectations can become a “treatise in the tacit terms of ‘the good black film’ as ‘the good black’” (10). I believe Poitier understood this slippage intimately. By having the weight of a community’s hopes on his shoulders, he was expected to provide a respectable image of Black masculinity, even when he slipped, as with his infidelity. The problem with such expectations, however, is that they can trap an individual into a specific role; “the good black.” And this is where Hudlin fails Poitier. In his attempt to construct a hagiography supporting an agenda of responsibility, he has frozen Poitier’s legacy into a particular form of representational politics. In its static approach to documentary style (talking heads, archival footage), and narrow historical vision, Sidney overlooks Poitier’s later life and achievements, only adding a brief and underdeveloped concluding montage covering those years. We know that Poitier’s career continued for another four decades and encompassed film and television work before his final appearance in Sidney just months before his death at the age of 95. By not acknowledging these years, Sidney only provides a partial look at the actor’s life and impact on Hollywood and American politics. Indeed, it suspends Poitier in the past, making him a museum piece.

“The Defiant One”

Cole Nelson (Indiana University)

Sidney Poitier’s passing in early 2022 is, presumably, in large part what prompted the swift production of Sidney (2022), a feature-length account of the actor’s illustrious career and legacy within Hollywood and the United States more broadly. With intimate, exclusive narration provided at times by the late Poitier himself, Sidney fluctuates between a standard biographical documentary, equipped with relevant talking heads and archival footage, and the more intimate self-reflection of an autobiography. Speaking directly to the camera – his charismatic face framed in close-up and lit by warm, diffuse lighting – Poitier peacefully recounts his life’s story, almost as if from an angelic place beyond the grave.

While Sidney gives its eponymous hero the final word in securing his legacy, he is aided in no small part by a star-studded cast of talking heads – including Oprah Winfrey (who also executive produced the film), Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, and Quincy Jones, among others – who hold Poitier in the highest esteem. The amalgamation of Poitier’s own dignified recounting and the reverence he receives from those reflecting on his life places Sidney resolutely within a tradition of hagiographic biographical documentaries. Sidney presents us with an obstinate figure who held fast – decade after decade – to an invariable vision of the American Dream founded upon mutual respect and liberal humanism. In Oprah’s words, Poitier “was a raised soldier who is leading the army for everybody else, but who really, fully got that he was not defined by his color.” According to the film, Poitier was embraced by white audiences and returned the embrace in a life-long struggle to marry Black and white.

The foil to Poitier, as Sidney would have it, is Harry Belafonte, a life-long friend to Poitier and fellow Black celebrity whose stardom was achieved in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement. In a way, the two celebrities charted inverse trajectories: on the one hand, Poitier strayed from his Caribbean origins toward the glowing lights of Broadway and the warmth of the silver screen, suppressing his Bahamian accent on the way to becoming one of the most famous actors in America. On the other hand, the Harlem-born Belafonte found his voice in the rhythms of the Calypsonian tradition and subsequently starred in Island in the Sun (1957), an exploration of postwar race relations on a fictional Caribbean island ‘paradise.’ Where Poitier is shown as the ever-poised ambassador for African Americans, appealing to the better judgements of White America, Belafonte is framed as the over-zealous, occasional rival to Poitier whose political temperaments were too far afield for Poitier’s taste. Poitier represented the best of Cold War, American liberalism, driven by a portrait of racial harmony; conversely, Belafonte championed the resistance of a burgeoning global Black movement. Sidney poses these two as a dichotomy whose lives and careers were punctuated by the other’s but neglects to substantiate that dichotomy.

Despite the contrast with Belafonte, Poitier is presented as ever defiant of the many forces that conspired against him throughout his life – from the very moment when he “was born two months premature” to his confrontation with Jim Crow segregation. As Poitier states in the opening moments of the film, “I was not expected to live.” And yet, his apparent obstinance and enduring determination ensured that he lived, and lived to the fullest. His fortune was not one of circumstance or sheer luck, but one that was hard earned, built upon his own undeterred fortitude despite the multiple setbacks of racial exclusion, harassment, and stigma. Sidney hails Poitier as the exception to the rule of systemic racism: his individual success seemingly offers the key to the good life.

His good fortune, however, carried with it a bitter poison. The zenith of Poitier’s acting career came in 1967 when he starred in three major films: In the Heat of the Night, To Sir, With Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Earning the respect of his white counterparts in each film, Poitier came to fully embody the respectability politics that simultaneously affirmed his fame and made him a target of critique. Contemporaneous to Poitier’s “slap heard ‘round the world” as Mr. Tibbs were the nation-wide agitations of the Black Panthers and the announcement of “Black Power” as a new slogan to displace the earlier movement for Civil Rights. Poitier recalls: “Given the quickly changing social currents, there was more than a little dissatisfaction rising up against me in certain corners of the Black community.”

Acknowledging the occasional bitterness of his success, Poitier laments “it was lonely at the top.” The determination that drove Poitier to the top produced, at the same time, his alienation. For the film, the concurrence of Poitier’s secured stardom alongside the denunciation he received from the more radical Black community is yet another sign of the actor’s strength in holding firm to his values: Poitier recognizes his own self-worth without capitulating to extrinsic pressures. Poitier was, it would seem, betrayed by the Black community rather than the other way around. Oprah recalls a similar instance in her rise to fame, in the midst of criticism for “not being Black enough,” where Poitier offered her consolation: “It’s difficult when you are carrying other people’s dreams. You have to hold on to the dream that’s inside yourself and know that if you’re true to that, that’s all that really matters.” Commitment to the dream from on top, rather than the demand from below, stands then as Sidney’s crowning virtue.

A Black woman has her hands on the chest of a taller Black man while both look back at the camera
Oprah Winfrey and Sidney Poitier. Image courtesy of Apple TV+

There is an overwhelming individualism to the way Sidney portrays its subject. Poitier is confined to a rags-to-riches narrative that frames his individual success as an ideal worth striving toward. Whether or not this is true to Poitier is less important than the fact that Sidney sees a man capable of transcending his circumstances due to some internal and unappeasable drive of individual conviction. In its unwillingness to look beyond the personal, Sidney misses an opportunity to situate Poitier within broader transformations of American culture. Sidney unwittingly advocates an individual response to racial injustice and, consequently, underplays the collective movements that continue today to shake the foundations of systemic racism.

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