Poitier’s legacy addressed by Oprah Winfrey in Sidney

Poitier’s legacy addressed by Oprah Winfrey in Sidney

LOS ANGELES: The late Sidney Poitier was at the height of his Hollywood career when he came under fire from black activists and intellectuals, accused of playing stereotypical and safe roles for white audiences at a time when the civil rights movement of the 1960s was imploding.

“Sidney,” the new Apple TV+ documentary released Friday, produced by Oprah Winfrey, features top-tier spokespeople from Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman to Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, to show why they went wrong.

“The truth is that since the invention of cinema there have been these degrading images of black people, and Sidney Poitier single-handedly destroyed those images, one film after another,” the film’s director, Reginald Hadlin, told AFP.

“He was a racial warrior. Without him, you wouldn’t have you, you wouldn’t have Oprah Winfrey, you wouldn’t have Barack Obama.”

It is one of several discussions at the heart of “Sydney,” which features Poitier’s interviews with Winfrey years before his death in January at the age of 94.

The film deals with the Poitier affair during his first marriage to Juanita Hardy – a potentially thorny topic as she and their three surviving daughters are interviewed in the documentary.

“When I first sat down with the family, to talk about the possibility of making the film, I said, ‘Is anything off limits?'” Hudlin said. “I specifically put this up as an example.”

“They were like, ‘No, no, no, we want to tell the whole truth. “So I appreciate the fact that they weren’t just interested in making a puff piece.”

The film also delves into horrific moments of racial violence in Poitier’s life.

In 1964, Poitier and Harry Belafonte were pursued through Mississippi by members of the Ku Klux Klan who were taking up arms while handing money to the voting rights movement.

An earlier match with the Klan, and a white policeman who harassed a teenage Poitier at gunpoint, has been presented as central to his pioneering career and often-overlooked activism.

“This is amazing — it never dissolved in the gallbladder, and never let them break it down,” Hudlin said.

“He kept turning it into strength, into more determination, into more will.”

– ‘No precedent’ –

But perhaps the most controversial part of Poitier’s legacy remains the suggestion that he was too impregnable or docile to white audiences and Hollywood.

“Sydney” highlights a 1967 New York Times article titled “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” which accused Poitier of “playing essentially the same role, the one-dimensional purgatory hero”.

She described “Sidney Poitier Syndrome: A good man in an all-white world, with no wife, no lover, no woman to love or accept, helps the white man to solve the white man’s problem.”

Just three years ago, Poitier became the first black actor to win an Oscar for “Lilies of the Field,” in which he played a traveling handyman who eventually helps and strengthens a group of white nuns.

Other roles, such as his role as a beggar in “Porgy and Bess”, came to be viewed as racist by critics.

According to Hudlin, the backlash “was an inevitable byproduct of the work he was doing,” and Poitier—who “knew it was coming”—was more concerned with humanizing the black experience.

“He kept it in more context,” Hadlin said, noting that persecuted minorities were “suddenly fighting back, achieving their freedom,” and “they have to know in real time as it happens.”

“I think we can now look at it from a broader historical perspective, and say that those decisions that Sidney Poitier made were right and helped the big cause to move forward.”