Oprah, Cher Toast Sidney Poitier Apple Doc as a “Memorial and Celebration of His Life”
“I just saw what I saw,” an elder Sidney Poitier says in an interview reflecting on his early childhood in the Bahamas, when he’d never seen a mirror — or water coming through an indoor faucet — in the new Apple TV+ documentary Sidney. Out Friday on the platform, the Reginald Hudlin-directed, Oprah Winfrey-produced retrospective exists not only as a summary of Poitier’s singular career in Hollywood as an actor and filmmaker but also as the first public memorial for the trailblazing visionary who died in January at age 94.
The youngest son of two principled tomato farmers who a soothsayer (rightly) predicted would touch all corners of the world at the time of his premature birth, Poitier would go on to top summits; in 1963, he won the best actor Academy Award for Lilies of the Field, the first Black actor to win for a leading role.
On Wednesday night at the Academy Museum — home of the Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby — Apple hosted a premiere for the 106-minute film, which premiered at TIFF earlier this month. Hudlin, Winfrey, and producer Derik Murray were joined by Poitier’s five daughters, as well as actress Karen Sharpe (widow of the late director Stanley Kramer who cast Poitier in career-defining movies The Defiant Ones and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and Cher, who called the late star “an amazing person and one of the best actors ever.”
“I believe love is in the details and … this is an act of love,” Winfrey said when introducing the screening. “I have loved him since I was 10 years old and to be able to be a part of sharing our vision of how we see him — and allowing the rest of the world to see him as we see him — is our offering.”
Before his death, Winfrey had completed a two-day interview with Poitier for OWN, and those eight hours became a part of the grounding field for this documentary, she shared.
“Our country has not publicly mourned him yet; there has not been a public memorial service for him,” Winfrey continued. “So this film, in many ways, is a memorial and celebration of his life.”
Onstage, Beverly Poitier-Henderson, Poitier’s eldest child, spoke on behalf of the family, saying: “Many people confuse the characters actors play with the actual person. In my father’s case, he chose roles that reflected his values. My sisters and I are very proud of him and his commitment to leave the world better than he found it.” As a way of honoring him, she asked those in the audience to do the same.
Executive producer Catherine Cyr told The Hollywood Reporter that interviewing Poitier’s entire family for the film was “one of our biggest assets,” adding: “I think we would have a major regret if they weren’t represented.” The film also features poignant anecdotes from Hollywood heavyweights including Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Halle Berry, and Barbara Streisand, and critics like the late Greg Tate. But one particular moment with Morgan Freeman resonated with Cyr the most.
“There’s a small moment in the beginning of the film when [Poitier] talks about just moving to Harlem, and he was trying to learn how to read. He sat down at a cafe and this young Jewish gentleman sat there every single day to read with him. Freeman comes in to say: ‘Throughout life, if you try, someone will always be there to help lift you up. But if you don’t, you won’t get that help.’ That whole combination of a scene always just melts me.”
Hudlin, who noted Poitier’s dignity, courage and elegance as traits of his he remembers most, spoke about how this film situates the actor and activist not only in the timeline of Hollywood history but also with an eye toward the future. “With the truly great ones, we have to tell the story again for each generation,” he told THR. “It’s important for us to remember the vastness of his life and all the things he accomplished because he did so much.”
“His humanity is what the film brings across, I think — and what I think he will be remembered for,” said daughter Anika Poitier, who served as a producer on the film and dug through storage to find various photographs and videos for the project. “He was always so kind and gracious with anyone who came up to talk to him. He loved people. He loved connecting with people and getting to know them. He would treat his best friend the same that he would treat a stranger on the street.”
Sheryl Lee Ralph, David Oyelowo, Loretta Devine, Colman Domingo and Dennis Haysbert were also among the stars who came out to celebrate the film’s premiere, with Ralph declaring, “the journey of Mr. Sidney Poitier is one that everybody should know about. This is the American dream.”
The documentary weaves a rich and nuanced nonfiction narrative of a career marked with challenges and occasional loneliness. In it, Winfrey shares a memory of Poitier encouraging her as a Black entertainer beloved by white audiences, nodding at his own struggles with the unfair burden of what some sociologists — and one 1967 New York Times article called — “Sidney Poitier syndrome: A good guy in a totally white world, with no wife, no sweetheart, no woman to love or kiss, helping the white man solve the white man’s problem.” But it also explores his personal life, and how passion (his nine-year public affair with actress Diahann Carroll) and activism during the height of the Civil Rights movement (which he navigated with his on-and-off again best friend Harry Belafonte) sometimes derailed it.
“[The film] tells the historical history of Hollywood and its relationship — or non-relationship — with African-Americans,” Pamela Poitier shared. “My father was a trailblazer in that sense, but he didn’t think of himself as [one]. He just thought of himself as a man who wanted to act.”
Executive producer Terry Wood, a longtime collaborator of Winfrey’s, said she was a little nervous working on this project, which has been in the works since 2018 because she knew how special the film was to Winfrey. “You want to get every minute of it, every second of it right,” she said, adding: “[And] you get a chill when you’re trying to finish it because you wish he could see it.”