Photo courtesy of Clement Virgo.
Toronto-based filmmaker Clement Virgo is one of Canada’s most intriguing directors; some say he’s Canada’s own black cinema king, akin to Spike Lee. His breakout feature film Rude, a radical and ballsy depiction of life in Regent Park, is largely considered to be the first standout piece of Canadian black cinema. It won the Best Canadian Feature Film award at TIFF in 1995 and Virgo has gone on to make other notable films including Love Come Down, the sexually revealing Lie With Me, and Poor Boy’s Game starring Danny Glover. Virgo is also one of the country’s most successful television directors with episodes of shows like The Wire, The Listener, ReGenesis, Soul Food, and The L Word under his belt.
This year the Canadian Film Centre has teamed up with Virgo to celebrate Black History Month with a special screening and panel discussion on the classic film In The Heat of The Night directed by fellow Canadian film kingpin Norman Jewison. Jewison will join Virgo and special guest Lee Daniels, who recently became the second black director ever nominated for Best Director at the Oscars for his film Precious, for a panel that promises to be any cinephile’s wet dream.
We caught up with Virgo to chat about Sidney Poitier, the trouble with Canadian black cinema, his thoughts on white directors telling black stories, and if it’s still hard being black in Hollywood today.
Torontoist: What makes In The Heat of the Night a film worth celebrating during Black History Month?
Clement Virgo: It was made during the height of the civil rights movement and the black “hero” was changing on screen. Sidney Poitier was the first black actor to win an Oscar for Lilies of the Field a few years earlier, but his character of Virgil Tibbs was radically different. There’s a key scene in that movie where a white man slaps him and Sidney Poitier’s character immediately slaps him back. The white man responds, “There was a time I could have had you killed for that.” This was a seminal moment because it ushered in the black heroes we saw on screen during the ’70s blaxploitation period through characters like Shaft, Superfly, etc. In the Heat of the Night was a transformative film that ushered in a new consciousness and changed things for the black hero on screen.
Were you personally inspired as an artist by the work and career of Sidney Poitier?
For many years Sidney Poitier represented a source of strength and dignity for many blacks. He helped to bring about actors like Denzel Washington, Samuel Jackson, Morgan Freeman, etc. As a black filmmaker growing up, often times Sidney Poitier was the leading Black star and prior to the ’70s he was often the only black leading man there was in cinema, so yes, he was an inspiration.
Are there any topics you’re eager to bring up during the CFC panel with Lee Daniels and Norman Jewison?
Lee Daniels has a knack for finding stories with strong black female characters; I’m curious to see what draws him to that. Norman Jewison’s work has always been socially progressive, and he manages to entertain while intellectually stimulating his audience, so I’m curious to see how he goes about choosing projects.
What are the biggest hurdles facing black filmmakers in Canada today?
Artists as a whole are increasingly competing for the dollars and the attention of their audience. However, being a black artist adds a certain amount of difficulty in terms of trying to tell stories that might not always be perceived as having enough broad audience appeal. But I believe the more specific you are in your storytelling, the more universal you are.
Do you have any advice for young black filmmakers looking to tell their stories with the same success you’ve had?
First of all, I’m still working on the idea of being a “success.” However, I would say, beyond talent, I think filmmakers and all artists have to be persistent and resilient to the disappointment that will inevitably come as you pursue the goal of trying to be a filmmaker. Additionally, I would say an intrinsic love for film is essential and a continual practice. What I mean by that is continuing to read about films, study films, and practice shooting and making films whenever you get the opportunity.
Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night.
Every country has its own unique perspective. Is there something that distinguishes black Canadian filmmakers from black filmmakers making work in other countries?
We have a different history here in Canada. In America, the country itself is shaped by the legacy of slavery, reconstruction, and their civil rights movements. In Canada, the bulk of the black population is made up of immigrants from former British Colonies who came as part of a third wave of immigration in the second half of the twentieth century. So the work of black Canadians has similarities to the work of say British black filmmakers. However, I think one could argue that there is a collective aesthetic within the black diaspora when it comes to visual and media art. Similar to how the drum is a unifying sound within all music of the black diaspora.
What do you think is the most under-appreciated film made by a black director in Canada that people should make sure to track down?
Stephen Williams’s Soul Survivor.
Norman Jewison has tackled race in films like A Soldier’s Story, In the Heat of the Night, and The Hurricane. What are your thoughts on white directors tackling stories about black history?
I think any artist has a right to tell a story that they are drawn to. As a filmmaker, I feel I have the freedom to tell any story that I want and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to behave differently. As far as Norman Jewison goes, I feel his black trilogy has made a strong contribution to black images on screen.
Many think that all doors are open to black directors today but Lee Daniels is only the second black director in history to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director (the first being John Singleton in 1992 for Boys N the Hood). Is it still difficult for black directors to break into the Hollywood film system?
I think it’s difficult for all directors to break into the Hollywood film system. It’s hard, for example, for women to break into the Hollywood film system. Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the DGA award for The Hurt Locker and she’s one of a handful of female directors who have been nominated for an Academy Award. However, I’m proud of the fact that Lee Daniels has made history, becoming one of two black directors to be nominated for an Academy Award.
What is coming down the pipeline for you?
I have recently optioned The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, which won Canada Reads on CBC and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. As well, I’ve always wanted to make a western, and there is another script I am really excited about. There’s also a story set in New York during the early 1980s that I want to make.
The Canadian Film Centre’s Celebrate the Black Experience in Cinema event with Clement Virgo, Norman Jewison, and Lee Daniels presenting In The Heat of the Night takes place on February 9 at 7 p.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre.
Matt Thomas is a filmmaker, arts and culture writer, and is currently an associate editor at Fab Magazine.