By Jenna Zucker and Divya Rajagopal
TORONTO (Reuters) – The late Sidney Poitier forever changed the conception of what a Black man could be on a global stage, Oprah Winfrey and Reginald Hudlin told Reuters ahead of the world premiere of “Sidney.”
The Apple TV+ documentary, directed by Hudlin and produced by Winfrey, celebrates the life of Poitier, who opened doors for the next generation of Black actors in Hollywood and “redefined what people thought a Black person could be and who Black people were in the world,” Winfrey said in an interview.
“For many people that was their first relationship with a Black person,” she said of seeing Poitier on the big screen. “White people did not know Black people other than as maids or servants.”
Rising to the top of Hollywood was no easy feat for a Black man in the 1960s. Poitier’s portrayals of a doctor, lawyer, and detective broke barriers.
As a detective in the 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night,” Poitier’s character, Virgil Tibbs, is questioned by the white police chief in the U.S. South, who disrespectfully asks what they call him back in Philadelphia. Poitier, standing up for himself, famously and strongly responds “They call me Mr. Tibbs.”
“It was important for him as an artist, and as a Black artist, to only perform roles that were representative of what he believed was the integrity of himself and represented the integrity of his family,” Winfrey said.
Narrated by Poitier, the film paints the picture of a family man with tremendous self respect, emphasized by how his strong upbringing made him the man he was.
“No matter who you are, this movie will speak to an important part of you, and it gives you the opportunity to elevate yourself by following Sidney Poitier’s example,” said Hudlin.
The film includes interviews with Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Robert Redford, Lenny Kravitz, Barbra Streisand, Spike Lee and Harry Belafonte, all of whom share stories of how Poitier raised the standards of the film industry.
Winfrey recalls watching Poitier become the first Black man to win the best actor Oscar in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field,” saying it gave her hope for what was possible in her own life.
“I remember thinking ‘if he could do that, I wonder what I can do.'”
(Reporting by Jenna Zucker and Divya Rajagopal; Editing by Bill Berkrot)