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'Sidney' is a look at an actor who pioneered a vision of racial equality in Hollywood

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The life of pioneering actor, director and activist Sidney Poitier is explored in a new documentary produced by Oprah Winfrey called "Sidney." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the film, which debuts on Apple TV Plus today, offers a comprehensive, if measured, look at a performer whose career often embodied the hopes and dreams of Black America.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDNEY")

SIDNEY POITIER: The world I knew was quite simple.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: That's screen legend Sidney Poitier describing his childhood on Cat Island in the Bahamas during the early 1930s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDNEY")

POITIER: I didn't know there was such a thing as electricity. I didn't know that there was such a thing as having water come into the house through a pipe. Do you hear me? I didn't know what a mirror was.

DEGGANS: That's right. Sidney Poitier, an actor whose poise and elegant manner allowed him to become the first Black man to win an Oscar, grew up unable to read. And the best thing about Apple TV Plus' documentary "Sidney" is that you often hear these stories from Poitier himself through recorded interviews with the star, who died in January at age 94. Consider this moment when Poitier recalls the pain he felt at the height of his box office success in the late 1960s, when some Black people said his characters, often smoothly, erudite and assimilated, made white moviegoers feel too comfortable.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDNEY")

POITIER: According to a certain taste, I was an Uncle Tom, even a house Negro, for playing roles that were nonthreatening to white audiences or playing a noble Negro who fulfills white liberal fantasy.

DEGGANS: That's one of the enduring paradoxes of Poitier's career. The roles which were seen as groundbreaking in the 1950s and early 1960s would be criticized as not radical enough by the dawn of the 1970s. Many of these quotes from Poitier come courtesy of executive producer Oprah Winfrey, who interviewed him at length in 2012. Director Reginald Hudlin added film clips, interviews with stars like Barbra Streisand and Denzel Washington and talks with his family to build an extensive portrait of a groundbreaking artist.

Poitier's personal story could be an Oscar-winning film by itself. After moving to the U.S. as a young man, he taught himself to read and to lose his thick Bahamian accent, determined to be an actor. Adamant about taking roles that reflected his parents' values, he played characters who expected equality with white people, like the Black doctor who went against his own father to marry a white woman in "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER")

POITIER: (As John Prentice) You're my father, but you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.

DEGGANS: Film star Morgan Freeman explained the prejudice Poitier was overturning.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDNEY")

MORGAN FREEMAN: If you're going to work in movies, you better be funny - Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING OF THE ZOMBIES")

MANTAN MORELAND: (As Jeff Jackson) Oh, Mr. Bill, does I have to? Can I stay up here with you?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDNEY")

FREEMAN: I don't think Sidney ever played a subservient part, never bugged his eyes, never ducked his head, never said anything funny.

DEGGANS: And then there was the slap - not the one that happened this year, the one in 1967's "In The Heat Of The Night," where he plays a Black detective who reacts when a powerful white businessman slaps him by slapping the white man back. That landmark moment happened at Poitier's insistence.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDNEY")

POITIER: In the original script, I looked at him with great disdain and, wrapped in my strong ideals, walked out. That could have happened with another actor playing that part, but it couldn't happen with me.

DEGGANS: The documentary also carefully references tough moments like his affair with Diahann Carroll and the end of his first marriage. But "Sidney" is mostly a loving look, aimed at reminding audiences how the arc of one talented artist's career pioneered the modern vision of racial equality in Hollywood. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.