The first Black Hollywood superstar, revisited on Apple TV

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Director Reginald Hudlin’s “Sydney” was made with the full and eager collaboration of the Poitier family, following the template of many documentaries favoring or, in some cases, settling for it.

This is one of the good ones. Its format limitations (a stand-alone feature, less than two hours) and the personnel involved led, perhaps, to a classier overview of a singularly successful artist than an in-depth examination of Poitier’s influence. Clearly, man deserves some of the breadth of six hours HBO series on Paul Newman and Joan Woodward, But with Poitier’s death earlier this year, at 94, “Sydney” serves as both an occasional remembrance and a reminder of how stardom intersects with the world, and how Poitier continues his life in the face of typical burgeoning expectations. What did you do to maintain the purity?

Oprah Winfrey produced the documentary with Derrick Murray, and Winfrey’s 2012 interview with Poitier provides the through-line footage (alone on camera). Straight to the lens, in that unforgettable, gently Bahamian rhythm, Poitier recalls his early years on Cat Island in the Bahamas. The race was not a concept or threat to young Sydney, until he left Nassau (where he saw his first mirror, his first car) for Miami under his father’s arrangement at the age of 15. Poitier was born in Miami to his parents. ‘ meeting; Two months ago, she was not expected to live.

As a teenager on the mainland in Florida, he lived with his brother and did various jobs, including department store bike delivery. How this gig sparked a chilling encounter with the Ku Klux Klan put Poitier on notice: America was not built with his interests or his humanity in mind.

He went to New York by Greyhound in 1943, where he attended his first audition with the American Negro Theatre. Years later, he worked methodically, carefully, adopting a sort of “acceptable” American stage dialect. It was here that he met longtime friend and once rival, Harry Belafonte; When Belafonte couldn’t perform in the Broadway production one night (interfering with her day job), Poitier understood, and a Hollywood agent in the audience that night lit the fuse of Poitier’s career.

In 2012 interview footage in “Sydney,” Poitier is a mesmerizing, pure and simple. He recounts his pre-stardom days, with his family in the Bahamas, awaiting a letter (and some financial support) from his ambitious son. “I cut the house down,” he says at one point. “I didn’t write because I couldn’t put anything in the envelope.”

He Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s films made a great impact Tough, forward-looking drama “No Way Out,” And five years later, he had the courage not to take the role in “The Fenix ​​City Story” because his character was given zero screen time to react to the murder of their little girl (the same year he appeared in “Blackboard Jungle”). ) Later, he made sure the unscripted slap was made in the picture in a key scene in “In the Heat of the Night”. that Made history in a second and changed things.

A decade earlier, “The Defiant Ones” (1958) also made history: the first black actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for a leading role, chained to fellow nominee Tony Curtis. It was also, as writer Nelson George puts it in “Sydney”, a suspicious “magic negro moment”, a film in which Poitier’s character sacrifices his freedom to live with his newly enlightened white friend.

It’s Poitier’s complicated legacy that was cemented in his biggest decade of stardom, the 1960s: He made films for white people, many of those films still important, others (“Guess Who’s at Dinner Coming?”) Cringy and Stoody. Still, for many, including Winfrey, Halle Berry and others, progress meant progress in America at a particularly volatile moment.

Gingerly, “Sydney” relates Poitier’s affair with “Paris Blues” co-star Diehan Carroll, and on camera Poitier’s first wife, Juanita Hardy, looks down and away, when quietly addressing the matter that Poitier was using his separate apartment in addition to writing. projects. His second, 46-year marriage to Joanna Shimkus lasted until Poitier’s death. He’s also in the documentary, while the film veterans from Denzel Washington to Spike Lee to Robert Redford pop in to praise the actor, civil rights activist, director and North star they knew.

“I really, really try to be a better tomorrow than I am today,” Poitier says at one point, speaking directly to the camera, not from the past (2012 interview), but to the future. “A better person. Not a better actor. Just a better person.”

‘Sydney’ – 3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for adult subjects and racial slurs)

Running time: 1:51

How to watch: Premieres September 23 on Apple TV+. in addtion Jean Siskel Film Center164 N. State St., September 23-29.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

[email protected]

Twitter @philipstribune

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