Six months before Marilyn Monroe appeared alongside Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, Sidney Poitier co-starred in another movie with Curtis: The Defiant Ones, a landmark in the rise of the young Bahamian-American. Now in the same week as Marilyn Monroe is remembered in Blonde, the actor and director is the subject of Sidney. But the two projects are starkly different: Reginald Hudlin’s film is a fond and sturdy documentary whose sense of elegy is softened by having been made before Poitier’s death in January.
The subject is still zestful on camera. Celebration is the dominant mood. The film even restores a giddy lustre to that downgraded currency, the Oscars. Becoming the first black male to win Best Actor for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, the victor was overcome by the sheer import of the moment: “I won! I won!” he cried, returning to Nassau, where he had lived as a child, for a street parade.
By this telling, the Bahamas stayed with Poitier long after he conquered Hollywood. Hudlin frames the actor’s life as built on the rock of his parents’ example, accent transformed but self-respect unshakeable. And yet if that much feels simple, the film deals head-on with the knots of trauma that also shaped his career: American racism experienced first-hand, the fraught contradictions that came with changing a system from within. That Poitier was for so long the only black male lead in Hollywood — sit with that pressure for a second — is a vexed topic deftly unpacked.
Hudlin’s biggest success lies in always keeping two things in play: a sometimes painful story of unfinished progress, and a gleaming, gleeful salute to a giant.
In cinemas and on Apple TV Plus from September 23
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