“They call me Mr. Tibbs!” may be Sidney Poitier’s best known line, but his most evocative dialogue was in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. “You think of yourself as a coloured man,” Dr. John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier) says to his father, “I think of myself as a man.” It’s a defining moment in a career that became something of a cultural pillar in the civil rights movement. Poitier was an elegant and urbane black figure who transcended the stereotypes of Hollywood casting, which, until the 1960s, rarely went beyond comic relief.
Sidney views its subject through a sociopolitical lens informed by a gamut of admirers including Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Oprah Winfrey. The best stuff comes from Poitier himself, who speaks to camera about his life, especially his early years. Bahamian, Poitier has fond, wide-eyed memories of his first trip to Nassau, where he saw cars and white people for the first time. It’s an endearing insight into a different age.
Darker are his memories of Florida, where Poitier moved some time before WW2. He recalls the time a police officer, who noticed the young Poitier walking innocently down a suburban street, threatened to kill him at gunpoint. Needless to say, Poitier did not care for that corner of Florida, so the young Bahamian left for New York City, an experience he describes in wondrous tones some 80 years later. Indeed, Poitier has a flair for anecdotes.
However, despite its strengths in social history, Sidney is cursory on a personal level. The documentary spends so much time placing its subject in the context of the times that it neglects the detail of the man’s personality. He cut a noble figure, but what was underneath? I have a better understanding of his place in the culture, but I know little more about Poitier the man. What were his quirks, what were his anxieties? How did he deal with fame? I would have liked to see more about the egregious “Uncle Tom” accusations, but Sidney spends more time constructing his regal image, telling us how important he was. This becomes grating in the closing moments when hagiography sets in. Lenny Kravitz talks of how Poitier “came down to earth to change it”, while Oprah Winfrey has a suspicious emotional outburst, as is her wont.