TORONTO (AP) – Oprah Winfrey was discussing her deep affection for pioneering actor Sidney Poitier – a longtime friend and mentor – when she was overcome with emotion during an interview for the upcoming documentary “Sidney,” a portrait of a lifetime . She put her head in her hands and cried, “I love him so much.”
Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Morgan Freeman, George Nelson, Robert Redford and Halle Berry were all interviewed on “Sidney,” and their thoughts on the iconic artist and civil rights activist are often illuminating. But “Sidney” means something intensely personal to Winfrey, the film’s producer.
“I’ve been trying not to lose it, actually, because my love for him is as deep and as strong as any person I know,” Winfrey said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Sidney” was making premiere on Saturday. “He was my adviser, my counselor, my friend, my comfort, my balm, my joy.”
“Sidney,” which premieres on Apple TV+ on Sept. 23, comes 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 portrayed on the screen. Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “Sidney” was made with the cooperation of the Poitier 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 at the time of his death called “the greatest of the ‘Big Trees'” — made “Sydney” only more painful.
“The movie is an act of love for me for him,” Winfrey said as tears welled up again. “I don’t know why I’m falling apart. My opportunity to do that was my offering to him.”
Winfrey said her life was irrevocably changed when she saw Poitier become the first black performer to win best actor at the Oscars (for 1963’s “Lilies in the Field”). Life in show business suddenly became possible 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 entertainer.
“During the early days of navigating fame and all that fame entails, when I was being attacked from all sides by black people, white people, people saying you’re not the one or you should be doing this, he was the person I I turned.” 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 Morrie’?” I could have done “Sundays with Sidney,” Winfrey says. “He was my man. He was my guy. 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 interviews on the film when Poitier died.
“Whatever pressure I was putting on myself basically doubled,” Hudlin said. “There was a disappointment that I knew he would never see it, but I was happy when everyone wanted to touch him and connect with him, we would have this movie.”
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 his life story gives one last chance to be in his royal presence. Born in the Bahamas, Poitier 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 it.
“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 most important 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 examines how Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement connected with Hollywood. His friendship with Harry Belafonte. and his move into directing with Buck and Preacher (1972). Above all, it captures how racism, or anything else, was never a match for Poitier’s unwavering integrity.
“For me, personally, I look and go: How did he do it, without a role model?” Hudlin marveled. “He looks at a wooded forest and just carves a path, always making the right choice. How did he always know what to do without a road map? To single-handedly take on the decades of racist images in cinema, since its inception, and shatter all of those false images with the truth of who he was.”
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP