Sidney Poitier was the most important Black screen actor of the twentieth century, but if he had only made this one film it would have been enough. His performance as Philadelphia police detective Virgil Tibbs, who becomes embroiled in a murder investigation in Sparta, Mississippi, is a master class in authority, intelligence, and self-restraint… but even more remarkable for the brief flash of indignant rage which boils over once or twice, including an indelible moment when he returns the slap of a rich white man. This isn’t just a model Negro, this is a man, susceptible to anger and to arrogance. (So too, Rod Steiger’s local sheriff, who is so much more than the sum of his racist upbringing.) By this point, Poitier had been a leading man for a decade, and he had notched up a landmark Academy Award. This movie – a smart, probing crime thriller directed by Canadian Norman Jewison – would help make him the #1 box office star in America in 1968, according to film exhibitors.
The film was fashioned to reflect the tensions and turmoil of the Civil Rights era, but it more than holds up today. Quincy Jones contributes a fine score (with Ray Charles lending vocals to the title track). Working in colour for the first time, DP Haskell Wexler creates a hot neo-noir atmosphere that’s evocative and exact (watch for the close ups of black hands on white skin). Hal Ashby won an Academy Award for his editing. But it’s the Poitier / Steiger duel which is so magnetic. Writing about it later, Poitier said watching Steiger do his thing helped to teach him, after 15 years in the business, “What screen acting could be.”
Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant
Winner: 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Steiger)
Sunday February 05
Catch More Black History Month Programming
Also in Icons
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings
This boisterous comedy about a breakaway barnstorming Black baseball team in the 1930s should be better known. It's an entertaining gloss on one enterprising ball player's resourceful response to segregated leagues, with Star Wars' Billy Dee Williams.
Under the Cherry Moon (35mm)
Prince is Christopher Tracy, a gigolo on the French Riviera, determined to seduce $50 million heiress Kristin Scott Thomas (!). The pop star's directorial debut is a quirky, fun throwback to old school Hollywood glamour, with knobs on.
The most important movie Marvel has made to date, this Black blockbuster is a triumph for Creed director Ryan Coogler and star Chadwick Boseman. After the death of his father, T'Challa returns to the African nation of Wakanda to take his place as king.
Dear Jackie (Free Screening)
Henri Pardo's film is a cinematic letter to Jackie Robinson, the first African American player in Major League Baseball and a civil rights activist who broke the colour barrier when he joined the minor-league Montreal Royals in 1946. For a short time, the impossible seemed possible in a segregated North America.
James Baldwin Abroad: Istanbul - Paris - London
These three short docs, from 1968 - 1973, offer sharp, piercing glimpses of Baldwin in private and public, sometimes in repose and relaxed but more often holding forth, embroiled in the thorny discourse of racial politics, identity and self expression.
"This Time It's Personal" Films by Camille Billops & James Hatch (Programme 1)
Trailblazing artist and polymath Camille Billops and her partner James Hatch were courageous independent filmmakers who chronicled the ups and downs of their personal lives and family histories, and found in them the temperature of their times.
"This Time It's Personal" Films by Camille Billops & James Hatch (Programme 2)
The second programme in our short selection of independent films by Camille Bishops and James Hatch includes what is probably their masterpiece, Finding Christa, a deeply personal film about Camille's relationship with the daughter she gave up for adoption as a child.
Our Dance of Revolution
Award-winning documentary on the history of Black queer activism in Toronto, on communities that have faced every adversity from invisibility to police brutality.
Brown's moving film zeroes in on the descendants of the 110 slaves brought in on the last known slave ship to transport kidnapped Africans to America as human cargo, an illegal shipment undertaken as a bet by a local landowner, Timothy Meaher.
Alice Diop’s superb film, based on a notorious case of infanticide from a few years ago, subtly, almost surreptitiously evokes complex ideas and emotions around motherhood, gender, and marginalized communities.
Living in LA in 1968, French novelist Romain Gary adopts a stray Alsation, but to his horror discovers it has been trained to attack Blacks. His wife, the actress Jean Seberg argues it must be put down, but Gary insists it can be retrained...