In 2018, Network Entertainment founder Derik Murray met with Sidney Poitier to discuss making a documentary about the star’s life and career. Over the next two years, Murray established a foundation of trust with Poitier and his family, who all eventually agreed to the film. The result is “Sidney,” an Apple TV+ doc that examines the legacy of Poitier, who died earlier this year at 94. Directed by Reginald Hudlin (“The Black Godfather”), the doc was produced by Oprah Winfrey. One of the most acclaimed and recognizable movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the first Black man to receive the best actor award, Poitier was also a director and an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. The film includes interviews with Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Robert Redford, Lenny Kravitz, Barbra Streisand and Spike Lee as well as an audio-recorded interview with Poitier’s longtime friend and colleague Harry Belafonte.
Variety spoke with Murray and Hudlin about Poiter’s influence on Hollywood and packing his life story into a 106-minute film. “Sidney” premieres at TIFF on Sept. 10.
What made Poitier say yes to this project?
Murray: I believe the most important reason that Sidney, (his wife) Joanna and the family said yes to me was the trust we built in our meetings with them, as well as the pedigree of our past work … We were also blessed that both Sidney and Joanna had seen our Academy Award-shortlisted film on Muhammad Ali, “Facing Ali,” and loved it.
Did he or his family have a say in the final cut?
Murrray: The family was extremely helpful throughout the production, and both Joanna, and Sidney’s daughter, Anika, joined as executive producers. The family did not have a say in the final cut of the film.
When were the interviews with Portier filmed?
Hudlin: By the time we started production, Mr. Poitier was not available for filming. Fortunately, producer Oprah Winfrey had a wonderful relationship with him and had shot extensive footage of Mr. Poitier telling his life story. It was invaluable, and it formed the spine of the film.
There are so many topics in Poitier’s life to cover. How did you determine which ones to focus on?
Hudlin: That was the hardest part of making the film. Poitier had a long and eventful life. Every year of his existence was fascinating, starting with the circumstances of his birth and then on. The movies are powerful, his activism is important, and his personal life inspiring. I think the film reflects all three aspects with a good balance of each to paint a full picture of the man.
Was anything off-limits?
Hudlin: (He and his family) didn’t give restrictions, which made me comfortable that we could tell his story honestly. By taking (Poitier) off the pedestal and making him human, his story is more relatable.
What do you think Poitier’s biggest influence on Hollywood is?
Hudlin: Poitier was one of the most important entertainers in the history of motion pictures. His impact was global and far surpassed show business. We wouldn’t have President Barack Obama without Sidney Poitier. The ripple effect of his life is so vast, touching so many fields, I’m not sure how to measure it.
Do you consider this doc a love letter to Poitier?
Hudlin: The world loves Sidney Poitier. And I’m grateful that through this film, I get to express my love. But this is really Sidney’s final gift to us. His life is inspirational to so many people. Whether you’re an immigrant trying to fit in, if you’re oppressed and fighting for justice, if you’re an artist trying to learn your craft, if you’re trying to understand the entertainment business…this movie will elevate you.
Hudlin’s Toronto Doc ‘Sidney’ Digs Into Life, Legacy of the Great c