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Remembering Virgil Tibbs: Progress has been made, but not enough

Thom reflects on racism is the wake of actor Sydney Poitier’s death last week

One of my earliest cinematic memories is of the movie In the Heat of the Night.

This 1967 masterpiece, starring Sydney Poitier and Rod Steiger, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1968 along with four others including a Best Actor in a Leading Role nod for Steiger.

Even though I was just a kid when I first saw the film, the brilliance of the acting performances of both the leads stuck with me.

It was also a seminal lesson in the inherent equality of people

There is a lot of politics that surrounds the Oscars and it is interesting that it was Steiger, the white actor who played the crusty, racist sheriff, got the nod over Poitier, the black actor who played the sophisticated, northern detective.

Of course, by that point, Poitier already had a golden best actor statuette for his role as itinerant handyman Homer Smith in 1963’s Lilies of the Field.

It was emblematic of the only kinds of roles Poitier would take from his debut in the 1950 film No Way Out in which he plays a young doctor who has to treat a racist patient.

Both the man, and the roles he played, broke stereotypes and blazed a trail for minority actors in the movie business.

When Poitier died last week, many of the tributes to him might lead one to believe he single-handedly changed the world.

Not to in any way diminish Poitier’s greatness as an actor nor his contribution to the civil rights movement, but the thing about trailblazers is they are both architects and products of their times.

There is a fascinating and poignant footnote to the filming of In the Heat of the Night. Poitier initially refused to go south of the Mason-Dixon line (the historical-geographical demarcation between north and south), director Norman Jewison (who was nominated for Best Director) recalled in a 2017 interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

The very same issues Poitier’s character Virgil Tibbs faced in the film were issues the actor faced in real life. The filming, and Poitier, did end up going south and the crew had to stay at the Holiday Inn because it was the only hotel in Dyersburg, Tennessee that would accept black guests.

There is no denying progress has been made, but while black guests are not denied access, they still sometimes face discrimination at some hotels. As recently as 2020, lawsuits were filed against hotel chains in the States such as Hilton, Marriot and Choice.

Closer to home, stories about institutionalized racism pertaining to Indigenous people in health care, schools, government, policing and businesses remain all too frequent.

When icons of civil rights, such as Poitier, die, and we look at what they faced when they were doing their groundbreaking work, we sometimes feel like we live in an enlightened age, but we do not.

Yes, things are better, but we can’t let progress breed complacency.