For Oprah Winfrey, “Sydney” is an act of love for Poitiers

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For Oprah Winfrey, “Sydney” is an act of love for Poitiers
For Oprah Winfrey, “Sydney” is an act of love for Poitiers


TORONTO — Oprah Winfrey was discussing her deep affection for pioneering actor Sidney Poitier — a longtime friend and mentor — when she became overcome with emotion during an interview for the upcoming documentary “Sidney,” a life-spanning portrait. She buried her head in her hands and cried, “I just love him so much.”

Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Morgan Freeman, George Nelson, Robert Redford and Halle Berry were interviewed in “Sydney,” and their reflections on the iconic performer and civil rights activist are often illuminating. But “Sydney” means something very personal to Winfrey, the film’s producer.

“I was actually trying not to lose him because my love for him is as deep and strong as any human being I know,” Winfrey said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Sydney” premiered on Saturday . “He was my counselor, my adviser, my friend, my comfort, my balm, my joy.”

“Sydney,” which premieres on Apple TV+ on September 23, arrives eight months after the death of Poitier, the groundbreaking actor who paved the way for countless black actors in Hollywood and single-handedly revolutionized the way they were represented on screen. Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “Sydney” was created with the cooperation of the Poitiers family. Much of it was completed before he died in January at age 94, including his interview with Winfrey.

But the loss of Poitier—whom Winfrey called at the time of his death “the greatest of the ‘Great Trees'”—made “Sydney” all the more poignant.

“The movie is an act of love from me to him,” Winfrey said as tears welled up again. “I don’t know why I’m breaking down. My opportunity to do that was my proposal to him.”

Winfrey said her life was irrevocably changed when she saw Poitier become the first black performer to win the Academy Award for Best Actor (for 1963’s “Lilies in the Field”). Life in show business suddenly became achievable for her. They later met for the first time when Winfrey’s talk show was taking off. Poitier was one of the few who could understand what she was going through as a black artist.

“During the early days of navigating fame and everything that comes with fame, being attacked from all sides by black people, white people, people saying you’re not this or you should be doing that, he was the guy who I reached out to,” Winfrey said. “He said, ‘It’s always a struggle and a challenge when you carry other people’s dreams.’

It was the first of many conversations over the years.

“Remember ‘Tuesdays with Maury’?” I could have done ‘Sunday with Sydney,’” Winfrey says. “He was my man. He was my man. He was my friend and my brother.”

Hudlin, the director of “House Party” and the Thurgood Marshall drama “Marshall,” estimated he had completed about 90 percent of the film’s interviews when Poitier died.

“Whatever pressure I was putting on myself actually doubled,” Hudlin said. “There was disappointment in knowing that he would never see it, but I was glad that at a time when everyone wanted to touch it and connect with it, we would have this film.”

Interviews with Poitier were conducted earlier, separate from the film, before the star’s health deteriorated. But the footage of Poitier speaking directly to the camera and hearing that voice tell the story of his life creates one last chance to be in his regal presence. Poitier, who was born in the Bahamas, talks about how his young identity was forged without the influence of racism. It wasn’t until he left for Miami at 15 that he met him.

“I left the Bahamas with this sense of myself,” Poitier says in the film. “And from the moment I got off the boat, America started telling me, ‘You’re not who you think you are.'”

Sidney, which is based on Poitier’s memoir The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, touches on some of his seminal films, including The Defiant Ones (1958), A Raisin in the Sun ( 1961), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It also delves into how he connected Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement to Hollywood; his friendship with Harry Belafonte; and his foray into directing with “Buck and Preacher” (1972). Above all, he captures how racism, or anything else, was never a match for Poitiers’ unwavering integrity.

“For me personally, I look and go: How did you do it, with no role model?” Hudlin marveled. “He looks at a wooded forest and just blazes a trail, always making the right choice. How did he always know the right thing to do without a road map? To take on decades of racist portrayals in cinema himself, since its inception, and shatter that whole misconception with the truth of who he is.”


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