Sidney review – Poitier’s epic life story a paean to charm, talent and heroism

<span>Photograph: Bob Adelman/AP</span>
Photograph: Bob Adelman/AP

The inspirational story of Sidney Poitier is retold in this warm and thoroughly engaging documentary from film-maker Reginald Hudlin, featuring commentary from Oprah Winfrey (the film’s producer), Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Quincy Jones, cultural critic Nelson George – and Lulu, Poitier’s costar in To Sir With Love. Most importantly, it includes a marvellous direct-to-camera raconteur performance from Poitier himself, recorded before he died in January this year. (It also includes some great archive TV material and chat-show clips, including of course appearances on Dick Cavett, without whom no documentary of this sort is possible and who surely deserves a documentary of his own.). Harry Belafonte, his great friend, ally and rival in the civil rights movement, now 95 years old, was evidently not well enough to contribute, but he too is captured in clips.

Poitier came of age in the 1960s as a pioneering African-American movie star, in an era when society was loosening up: McCarthyism was on the wane, paranoia was declining, America’s white middle classes were waking up to civil rights and he was to prove a persuasive and charming ambassador for black rights with wonderful presence, dignity and Shakespearian bearing – although oddly, he never acted in Shakespeare.

Poitier grew up in poverty in the Bahamas and has some wonderful anecdotes about his astonishment on visiting Nassau as a child and seeing a car for the first time – and also seeing a mirror for the first time, goggling at the duplication it created. On moving to Miami, he faced death threats and violence from the Ku Klux Klan, but moved to New York City, got a job as a dishwasher in a café where a kindly Jewish waiter helped him to learn to read, and he learned his sonorous voice from a white radio announcer.

From there, Poitier found work in the American Negro Theatre and got a breakthrough movie role in Blackboard Jungle as a smart high-schooler. He was the black convict chained to Tony Curtis’s white convict in The Defiant Ones as they made their break from a prison van, gradually coming to like the white man and creating a mythic self-sacrifice when he throws himself from a moving train rather than abandon him: a gesture that still divides pundits even now. The slap he gave to a white man in In The Heat of the Night was a sensational moment. Poitier was upset to be later regarded as a safe “Uncle Tom” figure, but he kept working in the industry, transitioning to directing with resounding success.

Related: Sidney Poitier was a defining figure of distinguished Blackness | Todd Boyd

The documentary does a very good job in showing just how astounding Poitier’s self-invention was, considering his early poverty, a story almost Dickensian in its drama and romance. And Hudlin tells us about some movies in Poitier’s CV that may have been forgotten: like the very interesting Something of Value from 1957, another black/white pairing (this one with the Rock Hudson), set in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau uprising. It is a far more confrontational film, with Poitier in a more brutal and less emollient role, which has been allowed to disappear.

This documentary is a spirited rebuke to the “sellout” narrative which has been allowed to grow up around his career, and a paean of praise to his commitment, talent and heroism.

• Sidney screened at the Toronto film festival and is released on 23 September on Apple TV+.