Best of 2022: Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard on Reginald Hudlin’s Sidney

The directors of the new doc Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power on the compelling portrait of Sidney Poitier.

Sam Pollard: I thought that Reggie Hudlin put together an immaculate production with Sidney. I was very pleased he was able to interview Juanita Hardy, Sidney’s first wife, and their two eldest daughters, to let us see how complicated that marriage was and how his first wife informed his career, which I never previously knew about. I grew up loving Sidney Poitier to a certain point, but then I started to have issues with him because I felt that as an African-American actor, he compromised himself too much and sometimes took roles with no edge to them.

Geeta Gandbhir: I similarly thought Sidney was a beautifully made film and had great pacing. I knew the history, but there was personal stuff in there that I didn’t know, and some of what I learned was powerful and had a heartbreaking intimacy to it. I am a bit younger than Sam, and me and my generation sometimes look back on some of our predecessors in entertainment with impatience. Like Sam said, although Sidney Poitier was an icon, there was a point where we, as young Black and Brown folks, started to lose patience with him and felt like he wasn’t taking the risks or embodying the revolutionary spirit we wanted him to.

Watching a film like Sidney allowed me to have an inside perspective on icons from that time period, and really humbled me and let me understand what they were up against. It’s oftentimes unfair to judge people by the standards that we have now. It’s easy to forget, for example, how making Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was such a risk for Poitier. It’s really helpful to be reminded of how he did everything he could, despite how little agency he had, and made such an impact with his actions.

Sam: I hated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and even though I liked In the Heat of the Night, I only did so because he slapped the guy in the face! The classic scene in The Defiant Ones – where Tony Curtis is ready to get on the train and Sidney decides to sacrifice himself for him – is one of the most painful scenes to ever watch. It’s like, What? I thought that was crazy.

But I love documentaries about someone audiences think they know well, I love that idea of having people see this person in a different way. One of the things that excited me when I was making my 2017 film Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me was that Sammy never shied away from showing his trauma and conflict; it was always on the surface with him. Directing that film, it was phenomenally interesting to be able to see all this man was dealing with on a day-to-day basis, and how he was so upfront about it. Doing these films always makes me rethink where I am, who I am, what I come from. One of the things that I loved about making my new film, Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, or Four Little Girls with Spike Lee, is that I got to listen to people telling me stories like I would hear from my family growing up. Working on these films and watching documentaries about people like Sidney Poitier touches everything about who I am as a Black man in America, as a Black person in America. The traumas, the compromises I’ve made, and the way I’ve shaped my life – in some ways like Sidney Poitier – in one of the great professions of all time: making movies.

Geeta: Another thing about Sidney Poitier is that he was a model for so many people. Oftentimes, the first time we saw a Black person on screen, it was him. And he was in white spaces. Even though he may not always have been everything my generation wanted to see, he was a fully actualized person of color on screen. I really felt like I learned from Sidney how important that was, how much he meant to people when they had no one to look to. He was playing complicated roles, when previously those roles did not exist. He broke barriers, and that’s incredibly powerful. Hollywood has never been kind to people of color and so it’s remarkable that Sidney Poitier managed to do what he did, and with his dignity intact.

Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard are the directors of the documentary Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, a timely and compelling look at the struggle and determination to correct the political imbalance within a small-town Black community, which is out now in theaters and on VOD through Greenwich Entertainment. Geeta Gandbhir is an award-winning director, producer and editor with more than 25 years of experience in the film industry. She started her career in narrative film under Spike Lee and Sam Pollard. After working for 11 years in the edit room in scripted film, with filmmakers including Merchant Ivory, the Coen Brothers, Robert Altman, she branched into documentary film. Her most recent films include Hungry to Learn and I Am Evidence. Sam Pollard is a veteran feature film and television video editor, and documentary producer/director. Between 1990 and 2010, he edited a number of Spike Lee films, including Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Girl 6, Clockers, and Bamboozled. Pollard and Lee co-produced a number of documentary productions for the small and big screen, including Four Little Girls, which was nominated for an Academy Award® in 1998 and When The Levees Broke, a four-part documentary that won numerous awards, including a Peabody and three Emmy Awards. A prolific documentarian, his most recent films include Citizen Ashe, MLK/FBI, Mr. Soul and Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me. (Photo via Wikipedia.)