“The Slap Heard Around the South.”
If you’re a Southerner of a certain age, you know this classic Hollywood scene. One could argue that Sidney Poitier’s seminal performance defined the zeitgeist of a pivotal point in U.S. history.
The sixties were a volatile time in America; a time of many developing social issues that still shape our country today. It was the time of the civil rights, women’s liberation, anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. It was also a time of war, riots, domestic terrorism and assassination.
This is the chaotic world I was born into; one year after “In the Heat of the Night” was released in theaters. The country was changing. But sadly, like the small Mississippi town depicted in the film, my hometown was behind the curve.
When Virgil Tibbs returned Eric Endicott’s slap, it changed everything. You see, I am only one generation removed from a time when black men were lynched for defending themselves as Tibbs did against Endicott.
We were addressed as ‘boy’ in front of our wives and children. Our 14-year-old sons were brutally beaten and murdered for just talking to a white woman. It was an unwritten code that demanded subjugation and humiliation or death.
Poitier insisted that the character Tibbs (an educated and experienced lead Philadelphia detective) return Endicott’s slap. He once said in an interview: “Now that was not designed to be a big social comment,” Poitier continued. “It was designed on the basis of a man’s humanity. If it is offended in that way, [he’d respond in kind].”
Thank you, Mr. Poitier, for standing up for the integrity of Virgil’s character and portraying the raw humanity of black men for all to see. Rest in power.