Ronald and I watched In the Heat of the Night on TCM this week. Made in 1967, the year the Supreme Court ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, it remains a socially important film. That year Poitier starred in another socially relevant movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and a favorite of mine, To Sir, with Love. He was the first African-American actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in the 1963 Lilies of the Field (Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to ever win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind made in 1939. Halle Berry was the first female of African-American descent to win Best Actress in 2001 for her role in Monster’s Ball).
In the Heat of the Night is about a black homicide detective, Virgil Tibbs, from Philadelphia, who is traveling back home from visiting his mother in the South. He winds up stranded at the train station in the small town of Sparta, MS waiting for the next train. He is arrested for the murder of a northern industrialist based solely on his being a black man. At the police station Chief Gillespie is sure he’s solved the case.
He says, “Well, you're pretty sure of yourself, ain't you, Virgil. Virgil, that's a funny name for a nigger boy to come from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?”
Tibbs says, “They call me Mister Tibbs.”
TIbbs ends up helping to solve the murder, but not without feeling the full weight of the hatred and threats of the townspeople. In one scene TIbbs is questioning a wealthy citizen, Mr. Endicott, in his greenhouse. When Tibbs suggests Endicott is under suspicion for the murder, Endicott strikes him across the face. Tibbs strikes him back.
Eric Endicott: Gillespie?
Chief Gillespie: Yeah.
Eric Endicott: You saw it.
Chief Gillespie: I saw it.
Eric Endicott: Well, what are you gonna do about it?
Chief Gillespie: I don't know.
Eric Endicott: I'll remember that.
[to Tibbs] There was a time when I could've had you shot.
This movie always hits me hard emotionally. I see the same attitudes in people, the same shock, when they see Ronald and me together, as if we are offensive and need to be eradicated.
“Nothing’s changed,” Ronald said. “The thinking is the same.”
He spent an hour trying to explain to one of the golf range guys, an older white man, that it would be odd to tell someone he just met that he has a white wife. He asked the guy, “Have you ever told anyone your wife is white?”
The guy answered “no” and seemed surprised that Ronald asked him that question.
“Then why would you expect me to?” Ronald added. Slap, slap. Did the guy think, “There was a time I could have had you shot?”
Another Sidney Poitier movie I love and have watched over and over is Raisin in the Sun made in 1961. Lorraine Hansberry wrote the play, which debuted on Broadway in 1959, based on her own family’s suit against the covenants of a neighborhood that didn’t allow blacks.
She later wrote in her memoir To Be Young, Gifted and Black:
"25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation's ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."
In the film version, Mr. Linder, the representative of the white neighborhood the Younger family has purchased a home in, has come to offer to buy them out.
Linder: I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it. It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, that, for the happiness of all concerned, that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.
The family is offended by the offer and refuses to sell.
Linder continues as he gathers his things together and looks at the family who has become hostile towards him:
Well – I don’t understand why you people are reacting this way. What do you think you are going to gain by moving into a neighborhood where you just aren’t wanted and where some elements – well – people can get awful worked up when they feel that their whole way of life and everything they’ve ever worked for is threatened.
Later, after Linder has left, the daughter, Beneatha, wonders aloud, “What they think we going to do – eat ‘em?”
Her sister-in-law Ruth responds, “No, honey, marry ‘em.”
Nothing’s changed. See my post on our housing discrimination experience: The Legacy of Racism:
Speaking of marrying interracially, I love the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I remember Ma talking about it when it came out in 1967. She liked it, but she didn’t know then that she would live the experience in 1976 when I started dating Ronald. Poitier’s character, John, who is asking his parents and his fiancee’s parents to accept their marriage, says at the film’s beginning, “After all, a lot of people are going to think we are a shocking pair.”
Nothing’s changed. We shock a lot of people.
One film starring Sidney Poitier still has the power to make me cry. Patch of Blue made in 1965 is about a blind white girl who sits in the park stringing beads to escape her prostitute mother and her drunken grandfather. She meets Gordon, an educated black professional. They fall in love. At the end of the film, Selina asks Gordon to marry her, and he tells her there are many kinds of love. He is concerned that she does not realize they are racially different, and how difficult it will be to stay together. But Selina surprises him.
Selina: I know everything I need to know about you. I love you.
[touching Gordon's face]
Selina: I know you're good, and kind. I know you're colored and I...
Gordon: What's that?
Selina: ...And I think you're beautiful!
Gordon: [smiling] Beautiful? Most people would say the opposite.
Selina: Well that's because they don't know you.
Nothing’s changed. I feel that about Ronald: so many white people think of him first as black and not as a retired fire lieutenant, an artist, a musician, a dedicated husband and father, and a man. To them he will always be a black man, and the prejudice and stereotypes they carry inside color their perceptions about him. They don’t know him, and they don’t want to.
Sidney Poitier made some important films in the 1960s that made social commentary on the Civil Rights Era. Today those films are just as important because we have a long way to go on the journey to understanding race in America. I told Ronald while we were watching In the Heat of the Night, “They ought to show this movie in every classroom in America.” The surface of race relations may look different, but I know that nothing’s changed.
I’ve included an excerpt from my memoir. It’s one of my Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner incidents.
(Excerpt from Chapter 5, Why You Gotta Be Jerkin’? Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Dad looked gray, and he sat quietly in his chair. He laid the newspaper on the floor in front of him, and held his chest as he leaned over and read, just as he had when he had his first heart attack. This time he did not wait the entire weekend to go to the doctor.
Frank drove us to see Dad in the intensive care unit. I sat in a chair by the window, the sun falling on my hair, lighting it up like a red flame. Ma always told me she thought I would be the one to have red hair; she hoped for it, for a child that looked more Irish than Italian. But I was not that child.
I did not know what to say to Dad as he lay in the bed with tubes and wires connected to him. I could not think of anything to make him feel better. The hospital smells and the beeping of the heart monitor made me anxious.
“Your hair is red,” Dad said, “You dyed it, didn’t you?”
“No, it’s just the sun,” I said.
“Yes, you did. I can tell,” he said, laughing a little, but I knew he was upset.
“It’s the sun, Dad. If I move, you’ll see. I haven’t touched my hair.”
I stood up and moved to the end of the bed, away from the sun, so he could be sure.
I called Ronald the next day from work on the Watts line.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“No,” I said. I wanted to run back to Syracuse.
Ma started in on me minutes after Steve dropped me at home that evening.
“You were my princess,” she said.
“I had every hope for you,” she said.
“Ma, I don’t want to talk about this.”
“You caused your father’s heart attack. You might have killed him.”
I stopped breathing. The room swirled around me.
“Ma, don’t say that!”
“You’ve thrown your life away!”
“Stop, Ma, just stop!”
“You’ve broken my heart! I want to die!”
“Ma, why do I have to choose? I’m happy. I love him!”
“Your children will be hated. You’ll be ostracized. My princess,” Ma said. She moaned. She began to sob, and I joined her. “Aunt Josephine cut you out of her will,” she continued.
“So what?” I said, “What’s that supposed to do? How would that change my mind?”
“You’ve cut yourself off.”
“Ma, what if I choose you?” I said, the words thick in my throat, “You won’t be here forever. You’ll leave me alone.”
I cried. Ma bawled. I pleaded. Ma accused.
The next morning, with no sleep, I showered, dressed, ate some breakfast, and left the house at 11:15. My eyes were swollen and dry – I had no tears left. I walked down Locust Park toward Central Avenue to the bus stop.
Steve pulled up beside me in his brown Pinto.
“Hey,” he called out the window.
“I feel like shit,” I said, “Ma and I fought all night.”
“Over Ron again?”
“Yes, I don’t have time to tell you about it. I’ll tell you later.”
“Want a ride?”
“No, I need to walk,” I said. He waved and drove off.