‘Sidney’ review: An Oprah Winfrey-produced Apple TV+ documentary does justice to the remarkable life and career of Sidney Poitier

Counting the actor’s widow, Joanna Shimkus Poitier, and daughter Anika among its executive producers, the project is appropriately celebratory of Poitier’s achievements, but maintains enough distance to cover the more complex aspects of his story. It includes, for example, the turn against the actor in the late 1960s, conveyed by a New York Times headline that asked, “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” and his years-long extramarital relationship with Diahann Carroll, adding an extra layer to their scorching chemistry in a clip from “Paris Blues.”

Still, Poitier’s rise from humble beginnings in the Bahamas, immigrating to Florida and then New York to become Hollywood’s first black leading man, requires little embellishment, and represents one of those rare biographies where a single non- whole-two-hour film almost does not feel enough.

Poitier stumbled into acting, where his striking looks and dignified manner allowed him to escape the pitfalls associated with those Black actors relegated to clownish or peripheral roles that preceded him. As Morgan Freeman puts it (just one of those whose talent has enabled him to discuss), Poitier “never played a subservient part,” refusing a film that he objected to early in his career, when he could have used the money when his wife was about to have a baby.

Beginning as a young doctor in “No Way Out” in 1950, Poitier headlined a series of films that peaked in the 1960s, winning the Academy Award for “Lilies of the Field” and starring in a string of memorable films in 1967: Best picture winner “In the Heat of the Night”, “To Sir, With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

In the first film, it is noted, Poitier pushed for a change in which his character, Detective Virgil Tibbs, hit back at a White plantation owner after the man had beaten him, a scene that became shocking at the time, with Louis Gossett Jr. moment as “the loudest silence I’ve ever heard in a theater.”

Poitier died earlier this year, and he has been extensively interviewed, his biographical material says, while discussing things like his relationship with close friend Harry Belafonte, with whom he was active in the civil rights movement. He also acknowledges the criticism of his characters during that era as what came to be called the “magical Negro” for White audiences, and how that affected him.

“He got big shoulders, but he had to carry a lot of weight,” says Denzel Washington. For his part, Robert Redford (who starred with Poitier in “Sneakers”) notes that he was “inspired by his activism.”

“Sidney” is understandably so rich and close to material from the 1950s and ’60s that it’s almost guilty of racing through Poitier’s contributions in the ’70s and ’80s, successfully transitioning into directing (especially in comedies , among them “Stir Crazy” and his trio of films with Bill Cosby), help create opportunities for blacks behind the camera.

Perhaps most notably, Hudlin (primarily a narrative filmmaker whose forays into documentaries include “The Black Godfather”) beautifully conveys the toll of being the first black leading man, and how Poitier served as “a beacon,” as Freeman says, for those who have followed in his footsteps.

“Sidney” casts its own warming glow, in a way that illuminates not only Poitier’s path, but also the decade in which he carved it.

“Sidney” premieres in select theaters and on Apple TV+ on September 23. (Disclosure: My wife works for a unit of Apple.)