TIFF: ‘Sidney’ Producer on Bringing Oprah Winfrey, Apple on Board for “Long Overdue” Sidney Poitier Doc

TIFF: ‘Sidney’ Producer on Bringing Oprah Winfrey, Apple on Board for “Long Overdue” Sidney Poitier Doc

Oprah Winfrey will executive produce and Reginald Hudlin will direct Sidney, a documentary about the artistry and activism of the late Sidney Poitier.

Sidney, the sweeping doc about the Hollywood legend, which will bow in Toronto ahead of a Sept. 23 launch on AppleTV+, got off the ground thanks in large part to the persistence of the film’s Canadian co-producer Derik Murray. “This is a story that in many ways is long overdue, about an individual who really made a difference, who was a leader for all of us in how he approached his life as a role model and a mentor,” Murray tells THR.

In summer 2018, the veteran film producer first pitched Poitier and his wife Joanna after being introduced by Hollywood talent agent Barry Krost. “The first time I met him, he walked into his own living room and as Morgan Freeman says in our movie, he was that lighthouse, that beacon,” Murray says. “He just shone and was incredibly captivating and so beautiful and warm and polite and listening and having a wonderful back and forth with his family.”

It also soon became obvious to the producer that an ambitious story about Poitier’s long life and career in historically white Hollywood had never been told. “Quite frankly, I was very surprised at that juncture that something epic, which this man deserves, something as thorough as we’d imagined, had not been produced,” Murray adds.

So after identifying the scale of the archival footage and other materials available to a potential a director of the documentary, Murray met with Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang, Marshall), with whom he had worked on other projects, in fall 2019. “Reggie was in on the word Sidney. It was that simple,” Murray adds.

Then, on a June day in 2020 — a day etched in the Sidney producer’s mind — Oprah Winfrey jumped on board the documentary project. During a pandemic-era Zoom call, Hudlin pitched the project to Winfrey and her team.

“Oprah listened intently, asked several questions and then she did not hesitate. She said, ‘you know, this movie must be made. This man has been a beacon in my life and I’d be proud to be a part,” Murray recalls.

But Murray adds that a career for Poitier book-ended by being raised on a tomato farm in the Bahamas and becoming a beloved Hollywood elder statesman lauded for his matinee idol looks also had its origins in the U.S. civil rights era, when the actor and humanitarian marched with Martin Luther King and campaigned with Harry Belafonte.

“Look at the times he lived in in America, and coming to America, literally as a young kid landing in Miami, and how he was treated by the police and how the Klu Klux Klan surrounded his house for a reason that is unbelievable,” says Murray.

Poitier, who died in Jan. 2022 at age 94 years, was the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor for 1963’s Lilies of the Field and opened the door for other performers of color through his work in such films as In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

“All three of those movies come out in the same year, 1967. Three seminal movies in one year, at a time when the country is being torn apart,” Murray argues.

The documentary team behind Sidney had to lean heavily on archival footage and more current interviews with Poitier, and even audiobooks that featured his own voice, to tell the story of his life and career.

“We realized after speaking with him and understanding his difficulties in going back that we had an incredible abundance of Sidney Poitier on camera that we could draw on, and that his voice would lead us,” Murray points out.

And the wealth of interviews in Sidney includes appearances by Harry Belafonte, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Nelson George, Lou Gosset Jr., Katharine Houghton, Quincy Jones, Lenny Kravitz, Spike Lee, Lulu, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Denzel Washington and Winfrey.

Securing those interviews during the pandemic from Poitier’s contemporaries and those who followed his trailblazing lead in Hollywood provided a logistical challenge to ensure the safety of those taking part. And interviews with Poitier’s family weren’t completed until spring 2022 when safe conditions for those immediately around the aging actor could be assured.

Now, as Sidney gets set to bow on AppleTV+, Murray is feeling especially good about backing from the company and its platform after they made streaming history at the Academy Awards with the crowd-pleasing CODA, a deaf family drama that earned the best picture trophy.

Says Murray: “The way our partners at Apple have treated this movie from day one, with respect and joy, and just being there every step of the way through production, has only been amplified in how they have supported and conceptualized how this movie will be taken to the world.”