'Pimp Slap' is a term that gets thrown around a lot today in our popular culture. Maybe it conjures images of gangster movies or rappers or maybe you just picture a violent act of physical retribution, comeuppance or degradation. But here's a fact you can't deny: the pimp slap has become an iconic American term, especially in the arena of film.
And while there have been many great pimp slapping moments of ownage in the history of cinema, few carry the weight and gravitas of Sidney Pottier's pimp hand usage in the 1967 film In The Heat of the Night. This 'slap heard round the world' has been embedded in history as a cultural touchstone. Yet it was a movie that came very close to not even getting made.
As Mark Harris noted in a 2008 piece for Slate, "producer Walter Mirisch had to run the numbers and show United Artists that a picture in which Sidney Poitier one-upped a town full of white rubes could make money even if it never opened in a single Southern city." Basically, no one in the studio believed in it.
Then there was Pottier himself, who refused to shoot the film on location in the South, having been the victim of overt racism previously when on a trip through North Carolina with fellow actor Harry Belafonte. Although Pottier would later consent to a few days shooting scenes in Tennessee the story goes that he slept with a gun under his pillow every night while on location. Kind of puts things in perspective for those of us who weren't around for this turbulent period in civil rights history.
Ultimately however the film the did get produced and thank goodness for that. Otherwise we would have been deprived of one of the great moments in cinematic history. Consider the elements that made this slap a pimp among pimps:
- It was groundbreaking. This is widely regarded as the first time in history that a black man struck a white man on screen. The historical implications add to the drama. As a rule, any time you can blend subtext to a pimp slap you're doing something right.
- It was subtle. There was no diatribe or rant preceding the slap, just a slow build up of racial tension that was simmering throughout the conversation, then it happens. Boom! Endictott strikes Tibbs, Tibbs strikes back. If you blink you might miss it. Don't.
- It was unplanned. In the original screenplay the character of Virgil Tibbs was just supposed to stand there and take it. Pottier was having none of that and I think you'll agree the result of the change was probably far more affective (and realistic).
Take a look at the clip below and tell me you don't get goosebumps watching this scene. There have been many pimp slaps in the history of film but none quite like this one. Enjoy.