A documentary restores Sidney Poitier's place in the history of Hollywood and the black cause

Produced by Oprah Winfrey, sydney retraces the career of the actor, the first great African-American film star.

New documentary from Apple TV+, sydney looks back at the career of Hollywood's first big black star Sidney Poitierand in particular on the criticisms of African-American activists and intellectuals who accused him of playing stereotypical roles for the white public, in the midst of the civil rights movement.

Produced by Oprah Winfrey and bringing together personalities ranging from Denzel Washington at Morgan Freeman Passing by Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, sydney - which comes out on Friday - aims to demonstrate why these accusations were unfair to the actor, who died in January at the age of 94.

“The reality is, ever since the invention of cinema, there have always been these demeaning images of black Americans. And Sidney Poitier single-handedly destroyed, film after film, these images.explains to AFP Reginald Hudlin, the director of sydney. Describing the actor who rose to fame in the 1960s as a "warrior" on racial issues, he explains: “Without him, you don't have me, and neither do you have Oprah Winfrey or Barack Obama”.

Oprah Winfrey is also present in the documentary since sydney contains interviews that the actor gave to the television presenter, years before his death. The film also tackles thorny subjects such as Sidney Poitier's extramarital affair during his first marriage to Juanita Hardy. A subject that can anger those concerned but that did not prevent Juanita Hardy and the couple's three daughters from answering the director's questions for the documentary.

“When I first sat down with the family to discuss the possibility of making this film, I asked: Is there anything I can't talk about? And I specifically mentioned this example”says Reginald Hudlin. “They answered me: No, no, no, we mean the whole truth. I appreciated the gesture and the fact that they were not just there to tell what we already know.

The film also evokes terrifying moments of racist violence experienced by the actor. In 1964, Sidney Poitier and singer Harry Belafonte were chased in Mississippi by armed members of the Ku Klux Klan as they delivered money to a suffrage movement.

An earlier run-in with the KKK, and another with a white policeman who harassed a teenaged Sidney Poitier at gunpoint, are featured in the film as triggers in his often-hidden fight for the American rights movement. civics. "That's what's fascinating about him: he never let himself be broken, he never sank into resentment"explains Reginald Hudlin.

Sanitized Hero

But perhaps the most contested part of the actor's legacy is the sobriquet "Uncle Tom" sometimes thrown at him, a reference used in the United States and which implied that he would have been too docile. towards white audiences and Hollywood.

The documentary evokes an article from the New York Times dated 1967 titled “Why does white America love Sidney Poitier so much?”and who accuses the actor of “play essentially the same role”, that of the hero sanitized and without relief. A “Sidney Poitier Syndrome” is also described in the article, that of"a good guy in a white man's world, with no wife, no lover, no woman to love or kiss, helping the white man solve the white man's problem".

Three years earlier, he had become the first black actor to win an Oscar for Field Lily, in which he plays a traveling handyman, who helps a community of white nuns with whom he eventually befriends. Other roles, such as that of the beggar in Porgy and Besshave been described as racist by some critics.

According to Reginald Hudlin, the reproaches "were an inevitable consequence of the work he was doing" and Sidney Poitier, who “knew this was coming”was more interested in embodying the African-American experience on screen. “I think now we can look at it with a broader historical perspective, and conclude that these decisions made by Sidney Poitier were right and helped the social movement to move forward”he pleads.

The documentary also highlights the groundbreaking nature of Sidney Poitier's kiss with white actress Katharine Houghton in Guess who's coming to dinnerand the scene of In the heat of the Night where he slaps a white Southern aristocrat. “There was no precedent for what he was and what he did”concludes Reginald Hudlin.

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