There's something rotten in the state of Wakanda, and it's got nothing to do with the Black Panther. At the time of writing this, Marvel's latest superhero offering, fresh from the fantastic factories that churn out mediocrity garbed as social statements, has blasted through the US Box Office, heading for a $100 million opening weekend.
This article is not about whether Black Panther is a good movie or not, because it is, probably, one of Marvel/Disney's best, but the way T'Challa, played excellently by Chadwick Boseman, is being feted as the "greatest black role of all time" you'd think Virgil Tibbs was a figment of the imagination...and therein lies the rub.
While the modern day youth will be awestruck by the CGI brilliance, crisp direction –– courtesy the immensely talented Ryan Coogler –– and strong performances, the worry is that they will believe the consummate black hero was born on February 16, 2018. How many remember that day on August 2, 1967, when director Norman Jewison unleashed arguably the greatest character to ever grace the screen?
Rod Steiger may have been Oscar darling of In the Heat of the Night, but Sydney Poitier was its thumping heart, churning a torrent of emotion and grim determination through 109 minutes of cinematic genius. A black man in a white man's country, surrounded by a bubbling brew of racism and intolerance, yet unfliching in his resolve that the only path out of the darkness is the just one.
Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia police officer stranded in segregated Mississippi and cajoled into working a homicide that has split the town of Sparta. Tibbs' simmering passion and stoic quest for justice is set against the inherent racism of the town and its police chief Gillespie, played by Steiger.
You see, in 1967, the Oscar for best actor was always going to go to Steiger, brilliant though he was, but Poitier's role was a bellwether of sorts (like almost all his roles from Prentice in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, to Gordon Ralfe in A Touch of Blue).
Poitier's heroes didn't exist in make-believe kingdoms so sterotypically named, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there was a bit of throwaway prejudice at work when Black Panther was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966.
Poitier's heroes tackled the issues of the day head on, whether they were racism, interracial relationships, and even inner city education (as in To Sir, With Love). They needed no masks, because an anonymous hero is romantic buffoonery. Truth and justice has, and always will, a face.
The buzz over Black Panther also seems to have drowned out the murmurs surrounding another stellar black lead character that hit screens this year, Roman J Israel (esquire if you want to make it work). And they were murmurs; even though Denzel Washington has been nominated for an Oscar, the film has made $12 million in the US since its release on February 2, that's a tenth of Black Panther.
The Dan Gilroy-helmed Roman J Israel, esq is a solid film, sent soaring through the stratosphere, by a Denzel Washington performance that's simply...well...Denzelesque.
Throw in an impoverished black lawyer fighting for the rights of those unjustly incarcerated, preyed upon by a white all-apathy-no-empathy law firm, and temptation that would make Jesus flich, and you should have a winner right? A veritable generator of award season buzz! Well, no. But put a dude in a leather costume and stick 'Origins' somehwere in the spiel and you've got a bonafide moment in history.
Black Panther was created a year before In the Heat of the Night was released, and it says a lot about the modern state of mind that longevity and legacy are not so much about action or truth, but of perception and marketing.
So if you've tired of watching Black Panther after the third viewing and want to see a real hero, sans masks and futuristic weaponry, try Heat of the Night. Sure, it's got no CGI, or stars you may recognize, but it's got something else. It's got an unfortunately eternal relevance that no Marvel film can ever hope to replicate. There is no cloning reality, only those that live it. So remember the film and remember its star...They Call him Mr Tibbs.
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