the exemplary destiny of Hollywood’s first African-American star

Comedian Sidney Poitier.


In 1964, Sidney Poitier (1927-2022) received the Oscar for best actor for field lily, released the previous year. For the first time, the trophy went to an African-American. The year of the release of this naive film, the actor was one of the pillars of March on Washington, August 1963. Alongside his friend and rival Harry Belafonte, he mobilized the Hollywood ban and backbench around Martin Luther King. Three years later, this son of a small farmer from the Bahamas was the most popular actor in American cinema.

Sidney Poitier’s story is as exemplary as most of the characters he has played, and Reginald Hudlin’s documentary produced by Oprah Winfrey never quite departs from the reverence that this fate inspires. But this hagiography is rigorous and exhaustive enough to remain fascinating from start to finish. It is never more moving than when it ventures (never very far) off the straight and narrow.

The film is, in large part, nourished by an interview Sidney Poitier with Oprah Winfrey made in 2012. He repeats with verve the anecdotes that nourished his legend: his uncertain first days (his father had found a shoebox for make him a coffin, that was his cradle), the predictions of a clairvoyant, his childhood on small Cat Island in the Bahamas, his discovery of segregation in the 1940s. Curiously, the film fails to mention that the by chance he was born in Miami (Florida), where his parents had come to sell the tomatoes from the family farm, which made Poitier an American citizen.

Huge popularity

His remarks are interspersed with film clips and testimonies from his relatives. Thus emerges the silhouette of a star apart; unique representative among Hollywood stars of a community – African-Americans – in which he was not born, a passionate political activist (the film recalls his closeness to Paul Robeson, actor, singer and communist, which earned Sidney Poitier the vindicte of the McCarthyist press), condemned to interpret characters written and filmed by white directors.

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From this contradiction was born its immense popularity, particularly with female audiences of all origins, at a time when studios were reluctant to employ black actors for fear of arousing the boycott of cinema operators in the Southern States. But it also aroused the anger and irony of African-American intellectuals. We see passing James Baldwinand Spike Lee develops – very succinctly – the mixed feelings inspired in him, for example, by the role played by Poitier in Chain (1958), by Stanley Kramer.

This filmography remains, with a few exceptions (including the magnificent In the heat of the Night, in 1967, by Norman Jewison, in which Sidney Poitier slapped a southern planter), unknown in France, whether in the films in which he plays or that he has directed (including the western Buck and his accomplice, in 1972, with Harry Belafonte).

Among other reasons to see the documentary, there is the discovery of excerpts from A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Daniel Petrie’s adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, which was a huge hit on Broadway. We discover another actor than the image of the dignified and somewhat stuffy man who stuck so often in Poitier. The film is still unreleased with us.

Sidney Poitier: his legacydocumentary by Reginald Hudlin (EU, 2022, 1:51).

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