Dan Webster reviews " Sidney"
In its list of the top 100 movie quotes of all time, the American Film Institute celebrates lines that were written by some of the film industry’s most prominent screenwriters.
Among them you’ll find this one: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” That line, delivered by the great Bette Davis in the 1950 Academy Award-winning film “All About Eve,” was written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz – whose work won him Oscars for both Director and Screenplay.
Ranking No. 16 on the list is another memorable quote: “They call me Mister Tibbs!” The line, which was written by Stirling Silliphant and delivered by Sidney Poitier, originated in the 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night.”
And if ever there was a line that captures the essence of the actor who spoke it, this is the one. Reginald Hudlin makes this point clear in his documentary study of Poitier, titled simply “Sidney,” which is streaming on Apple TV+.
It’s difficult to stress just how important, and influential, Poitier’s presence was during the middle of the 20th century, though Hudlin certainly tries. In a number of films made in the 1950s and ’60s, Poitier wasn’t just a movie star: He was the groundbreaking presence that proved black actors could be more than the limited roles consigned to them up to that point – comic foils, domestic servants or, simply stated, victims.
In his first starring role, the 1950 drama “No Way Out,” Poitier was cast as a doctor who faces off against a racist criminal played by Richard Widmark. In 1955’s “Blackboard Jungle,” he was featured as a rebellious teenager who is befriend by a young teacher played by Glenn Ford. He starred opposite Tony Curtis in 1958’s “The Defiant Ones,” the two playing prison escapees who have no love for each other but who have to learn to work together just to survive.
Roles in films such as 1959’s “Porgy and Bess” and 1961’s “A Raisin in the Sun” followed, all occurring before Poitier became the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar for the 1963 film “Lilies in the Field.”
And the list goes on, most of it detailed in Hudlin’s film, which is a blend of Poitier interviews (several hours of which were recorded before he died earlier this year at age 94), archival footage and scenes from select films, along with interviews with a number of family members and celebrities – keying especially on his longtime friend and sometimes rival, Harry Belafonte.
Hudlin details how Poitier, born in 1927 in Miami, grew up in The Bahamas in a house without electricity or even running water. He never saw a car until his family moved to Nassau when he was still a pre-teen. By age 15 he was living in Miami, where he first encountered blatant racism – and a couple of years later he was in New York City where, eventually, he became an actor.
Even that wasn’t easy, as his Bahamian accent initially cost him a chance to join New York’s American Negro Theater. Months of study improved his diction, and he began snaring roles. Benefiting from the intersection of choice, chance and circumstance – along with his drive to succeed – he ended up in Hollywood where his star shined bright.
And even when it dimmed, as it did during the civil strife of the late ’60s, when he was branded by some as a so-called Magic Negro – a black actor who is viewed as safe by white audiences – he shifted to directing and producing.
Hudlin doesn’t avoid Poitier’s controversial actions – his near-decade-long extra-marital affair with the actress Diahann Carroll, for example – but he also emphasizes Poitier’s social activism and skills as a father to his six daughters.
And his famous line from “In the Heat of the Night”? He throws it in the face of the racist sheriff played by Rod Steiger, who – having learned that Tibbs’ given name is Virgil – asks him, using a familiar, insulting racial epithet, what they call him at home in Philadelphia.
Poitier, his face expressing a mix of pride and contained rage, delivers the line in a way that is less of a performance than a powerful portrayal of his real self.
For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.
Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for Spokane7.com.