‘Sidney’ director Reginald Hudlin on Sidney Poitier, Oprah, Harry Belafonte – News Kidda

In sydney, the documentary about the life and career of Sidney Poitier, the actor sits in front of a minimal gray background and addresses the camera directly. The images give the effect of telling Poitier his life story directly to the audience and is especially poignant given that the screen legend passed away early this year at the age of 94.

The interview itself is several years old and was recorded by Oprah Winfrey, who serves as the film’s executive producer. In front of Sydney director Reginald Hudlin, who joined the project without knowing the footage in which Poitier recounts his birth story, upbringing in the Bahamas, and access to entertainment in New York City, the access was almost miraculous. He says, “We were always like, ‘We can do this.’ But then we’re like, ‘Oh, we really can do this.’”

Sydney is meant to take the full measure of his life. Talking heads are everyone from Denzel Washington to Barbra Streisand, as well as the children of Poitier and both of his wives, Juanita Hardy and Joanna Shimkus.

Ahead of the doc’s TIFF debut and a Sept. 23 bow on AppleTV+, Hudlin spoke to THR on documenting Poitier’s political activism, friendship with Harry Belafonte, and not wanting to praise: “Luckily, Sidney got his flowers while he was alive.”

What was your personal relationship with Sidney Poitier?

When I signed up for this, I started thinking about what Sidney Poitier means to me and I realized he is such an integral part of my cultural DNA. It is inextricably linked to my definition of crazy, of black masculinity, of movies. He’s just always been there. Watching him and everything he did is something I’ve done all my life. It was such a part of my life that it wasn’t even a conscious thought. It was like breathing air.

How did Sydneythe movie, are you coming?

I was approached by Network Entertainment, who had struck a deal with the Poitier family to make the first-ever documentary about Sidney Poitier’s life. We had lunch with the family, and I was quite simple. I talked about my deep love for Sidney Poitier, but I said, ‘Look, we can’t just make a puff pastry. We really need to tell his whole life.” And I asked about some things that I thought were sensitive areas and they said, “No, no, no. Tell the whole story.”

Did you immediately start production?

We were looking around at first and it wasn’t like people jumped on the train right away I must say. In retrospect you think, “Really?” So we said let’s call Oprah Winfrey because she loves Poitier. So we said, “Let’s call Oprah.” She’s such a Sidney Poitier historian. Oprah was immediately like, “Sure.” She knows all about his life and, most importantly, she had seven hours of interview footage of Sidney where he talks directly to the camera and tells his story.

So you went to the doctor thinking it would be mostly archival material.

There were other ways to record his voice. I knew we had the audiobooks, but that [footage] changed everything.

Could these images just be lying around?

She’s had Sidney on her show several times and she’s on all kinds of shows – I mean, she’s got her own network. And she does what I would do, which is say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great person here. Let’s get this now.”

Was the plan always to record his whole life or did you ever consider focusing on a particular time frame?

There are these people who live very long lives and every year their lives have consequences. There ain’t no year it’s, same old same old. No, they made history every year. So we had to tell the whole story. Sidney’s birth is so profound; the circumstances under which he was born are unbelievable and his teenage years are unbelievable. The question is what are you leaving out. There’s a feeling you can get when you’re doing this where you think I have to tell it all. We live in a post-literate society. Although he has written two autobiographies, this film may be the primary text in 30 or 50 years. So you think, if we don’t put it all in, then the culture loses this information. There is no documentation that Sidney Poitier existed until he reached adulthood. It’s not like there are baby pictures of him. He lived in a world where there was no electricity, no running water. When he arrives in New York, he finally enters the public record. So the testimony of himself and his family is crucial.

Why was it important to make Sidney Poitier’s relationship with Harry Belafonte a big part of the document?

It’s amazing how much they resemble each other, but there are really important differences in perspectives that helped shape each other. It’s such a fascinating relationship. Two boys, each separately, had a profound influence on American history and world culture. Harry recounts the first time he saw Sidney when he auditioned for this Harlem theater company. He walks in, sits down, and he sees this man across the room and he gives him the “Harry eyeball” that goes. This man will become a problem and he will remain a problem forever. There was an instinctive sense of competition that shaped their whole lives. Harry Belafonte was probably [Sindey’s] longest relationship. These guys got to know each other at the beginning of their careers and stayed close to each other until the very end. That’s a brotherhood that’s crucial to understanding the man.

What do you want a younger audience, who may only know Sidney Poitier from his film work, to know about his political activism?

You can’t understand him until you understand the political side of him. So much of what he did on screen was so inherently and at times explicitly political. They were the other front of the civil rights movement. Entertainment played such an integral role and it was incredible that he single-handedly shattered stereotypes made up of the invention of the movie camera. When you think about the damage done by Birth of a Nation and the decades of evil stereotyping of black people and Sidney Poitier, you get the dignity, elegance, intelligence and intensity that destroys all those images, movie after movie after movie. And that’s reshaping the world and how they see black men. The challenge in doing that is that the revolution you create as an actor fuels the fire to the point where the movement follows you and then comes ahead of you. Then they go, you’re radical enough now, and it’s like: I was the most radical six months ago. The trick to creating a revolutionary art is that it takes 12 to 16 months to make a movie, but if you’re at a turning point in history by the time you’re done, it’s like being behind or ahead of you. running, or right on time. Over the course of his career, he was all those things.

Where were you in production when he died?

We were way below the line. We’re still in the final round of interviews, but we’re almost done.

Did his death affect filmmaking?

I was very happy that we had done most of the interviews before he died, because people didn’t have the burden of giving a eulogy. He was spoken of in the present tense, not in the past.

Have you ever considered adding an epilogue to the film to include the tributes after his passing?

It didn’t seem relevant. Fortunately, Sidney got his flowers while he was alive. For me, you know, the moment Denzel wins his Oscar and he hands it out to Sidney holding his [honorary Oscar] back. Or at the AFI honor to hear Harry talk about Sidney and their whole life together that brought them up to that point. For me, nothing has happened after his actual death that surpasses those moments.

How did your understanding of Sidney change during production?

The thing about making a movie like this is that it’s transformative. To walk into the life of such a great man you can’t help but take it personally. I try to be the best artist I can, the best dad I can, but the bar Sidney has set for us makes you think: I can do better. We’ve gone too far not to go any further. That’s what Sidney inspired me to do.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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