As a newborn, Sidney Poitier — the legendary actor who passed away at 94 in January — was already at death’s door.
“I was not expected to live,”Poitier speaks in the documentary “Sidney,”It premiered on Apple TV+ Friday. “I was born two months premature.”
The film traces Poitier’s remarkable journey from his father tucking him into a shoebox as a sickly infant to growing into a screen icon and the first black man to win the Best Actor Oscar, with “Lilies of the Field”1964
“I remember thinking, ‘If he could do that, I wonder what I can do,’ ” says Oprah Winfrey, who produced the documentary, about how Poitier’s groundbreaking career inspired her.
“It was the first time I’d seen a black man assert his power,” says Halle Berry — who became the first African-American woman to win the Best Actress Oscar in 2002 — of Poitier’s impact on her. “I wanted to marry Sidney Poitier!”
“He had big shoulders,”Denzel Washington was the second black actor to be awarded an Oscar for Best Actor in 2008. “He was given big shoulders. But he had to carry a lot of weight.”
Poitier, a Miami native, was raised in Cat Island (Bahamas) as the son and daughter of tomato farmers. “The world I knew was quite simple,”He says this in the documentary. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as electricity or that water could come into the house through a pipe.”
It was also not something he understood. “I never thought of what I looked like,”He says. “I didn’t know what a n – – – – r was.”
That all changed, though, when he was sent to Miami at 15 to be with his brother’s family. “From the time I got off the boat, America began to say to me, ‘You’re not who you think you are,’ ”He says.
According to the documentary, he left a package for a white home and was told by the lady who answered to him that he should go round to the back. Poitier was confronted by the ugly truth of racism and left the house.
A proud nature was what he had that would be with him through his entire career, and in the many roles that he played in films like “To Sir, With Love” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
“There was the habit in Hollywood of utilizing blacks in the most disrespectful way, and I said, ‘I cannot play that, ” says Poitier.
“I don’t think Sidney ever played a subservient part,” adds Morgan Freeman, another Oscar-winning black actor who followed in Poitier’s footsteps.
At age 16, Poitier moved to New York to pursue acting, but he didn’t find immediate success and slept for a time in the pay toilets on the roof of the Brill Building. After being kicked out by the American Negro Theatre in New York, Poitier took acting classes. He also learned to imitate a newsreader and bought a $14 radio.
The documentary details how Poitier had a special bond with Harry Belafonte, another black entertainer who was hugely popular during the civil-rights movement of the ’60s.
“If there were equality of opportunity in this business, there would be 15 Sidney Poitiers and 10 or 12 [Harry] Belafontes,”Poitier said in the doc. “But there is not.”
Poitier persevered and became a film director and producer. “He even put black people in a position where they could have a career behind the camera,” says director Spike Lee. “It is not easy being the first — when you had to represent the entire race.”
Indeed, Poitier never let his race set any limitations on him as an actor — or as a man.
“When I arrived at the age of 15, almost everything I heard said to me, ‘There are different values here. Here, you are not the person you think you are,’ ”In the movie, he speaks out. “But I came with 15 years of preparation. I was strong enough to say to myself, ‘The me that I’ve been for 15 years — I like that me! That’s a free me. I can’t adjust to being a restricted me.’ ”
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