Revisiting in the Heat of the Night

In the fifties and through most of the sixties few if any Hollywood films dealt in a serious and authentic manner with black life. The only one that readily comes to mind is Michael Roemer’s (a white filmmaker) Nothing But a Man (1964), starring Ivan Dixon as an itinerant black laborer in the Deep South of the early 60s. Nothing But a Man was a low-budget, realist film that managed to capture the humiliation of being a second-class citizen in the 60s south, and, more distinctively, African-American society’s class differences and the fragility of its family structure.

There were no working black directors in Hollywood, and also only one genuine black film star during that period, Sidney Poitier.  His self-possessed, charismatic, heroic presence graced a number of films ranging from Stanley Kramer’s work of liberal poster art, The Defiant Ones (1958) to the glossy, chaste interracial romance Guess Who’s Coming Home to Dinner (1967).

Poitier was the black star who Hollywood had designated as their token African-American. In fact, he was the first African-American actor to achieve leading man status in Hollywood films. In film after film he played a, character whose humanity and dignity made him consistently successful with white audiences. Poitier never bowed or scraped to whites, but he was so reasonable and humane that white audience knew that his anger, no matter how much he would smolder, would always stay within acceptable bounds, and that there was nothing to fear from the characters he portrayed. His characters were the type of men who could only arouse the hatred or abuse of the most ignorant or racist of whites.

During the more militant, and race-conscious sixties, black activists often put down Poitier’s persona as middle-class, masochistic, and liberal.  Nevertheless, he was one black actor who no longer had to sing, dance, clown, and roll his eyes to have his image appear on the screen. And though Hollywood’s handling of the race problem was neither bold nor imaginative, given the conformist and racist political tenor of the time, the emergence of a token black star could still be viewed as a minor triumph.

One of the strongest of Poitier’s films was the Oscar-winning crime melodrama, Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967). The film’s script, written by Sterling Silliphant, was filled with contrivances, but the obvious strengths of the film lay in Haskell Wexler’s cinematography and its performances. Wexler was working in color for the first time, and created a rich palette of shadows and dry scrub, menacing inky black corners, and glowing red lights of danger gleaming in the summer heat and darkness. And the film’s acting was first rate. Poitier does a star turn, emanating grace, courage, keen intelligence, and a touch of arrogance and condescension as Philadelphia’s number one homicide detective, Virgil Tibbs. And Steiger, always a powerful character actor when under control, gave one of his strongest performances as the blustery, thickset, solitary, insomniac-suffering Mississippi small town (Sparta) sheriff, Bill Gillespie. The sheriff initially desires, without much of an investigation, to arbitrarily pin the murder on the most convenient suspects he can find. But he turns out to be much shrewder than is at first apparent. Though sharing the prevailing racist attitudes of the town (during their first encounter, Gillespie reflexively calls Tibbs “boy”), a pragmatic and strong-willed Gillespie is able to submerge his racism and resentment and get, the sharper, more experienced detective, Tibbs, whose expertise is needed to solve the crime, to work with him. As the narrative evolves, they predictably develop a mutual respect for each other—two lonely, unmarried, tough men who believe in justice (both are also outsiders), and can transcend at times their own wariness of each other. The film heavy-handedly underlines this point by concluding with Tibbs’ hand clasping Gillespie’s as he leaves Sparta on the train for the north.

Though In the Heat of the Night appeared during the era of inner city riots like Watts, the rise of the black power movement, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act, the film industry, still adhered to its sanguine belief that change could take place if blacks and whites would only learn to understand and accept each other (e.g., Lost Boundaries, 1949). And it’s made easy in this film, because Tibbs is more astute, attractive, and professional than any of the film’s white characters. If race weren’t a factor, he would be a man embraced for his character and talent.

Consequently, In the Heat of the Night never attempted to convey that real social change is dependent on the transformation the country’s social and economic institutions, feeling that good personal relationships were sufficient.  But if the film is much too optimistic and sentimental about the social ramifications of sympathetic feelings between individuals, it is implicitly aware of the role economics and class play in the still segregated Deep South of the period. The man who is murdered is a Chicago factory owner who will bring jobs and integrate the work force in the area. (Though the film never implies that the factory was probably being opened in the South to avoid unionization, and pay lower wages to its workers.) Tibbs is middle class and well-dressed, while many of the whites are either working class like Gillespie or more marginal, slow-witted, murderous rednecks that seem to come out of central casting. Though at first they all resent Tibbs, not only because he’s black, but also because he’s of another class, and won’t submit to being humiliated. He ultimately gains some of their respect for his astuteness and courage.

The film contains one arresting scene, where the racist, cotton-plantation owner, Endicott (Larry Gates) slaps Tibbs in the face after a question he perceives disrespectful, Tibbs instantly returns the slap with one of his own—he has too much pride to allow himself to be treated with contempt.  It was a startling moment in the history of Hollywood film—a black man refusing to be treated with contempt and striking directly back at the oppressor. When the political climate changed and greater profit beckoned through reaching out to a black audience, blacks began to play more than a token role (if not an equitable one) in Hollywood. It was then no longer unique for black men played by intense, high decibel character actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Poitier-style leading men like Denzel Washington to strike back at whites and the power structure itself. For these leading men, the white power structure would usually bend, and give in to their demands. But a larger overview of class and racial dynamics has rarely been articulated in these films.

However, from the vantage point of black-white relations in 2008, In the Heat of the Night seems anachronistic. While racism still exists in this country—it manifests itself in much more subtle, sinuous ways, even in the Deep South, than it did in 1967. So, one feels watching the film, of having traveled in a time capsule back to the South of bullnecked sheriffs, cattle prods, barking attack dogs, and howling racist mobs. Today, the media, the corporations, and American politics seek out articulate, skilled black men like Tibbs—men who project few or no overt signs of carrying a residue of inner city black culture.  The Tibbs of today have become pundits, television anchors, CEO’s, and even governors. Think of Barack Obama as a more emotionally expansive, and a less defensive and filled with repressed anger Tibbs. Obama, of course has had genuine advantages, being shaped by a much less racist, more open society than Tibbs, and attending a set of elite institutions like Columbia and Harvard that gave him a leg up.

But even Obama, biracial and raised in a mainly white world, has not been able to avoid the legacy of race and racism. It’s his special eloquence, and nuanced intelligence that has garnered adulation (sometimes over-the top and possibly helped by being biracial) from younger whites and the upper middle class looking for a fresh voice At the same time, it has aroused both unstated and expressed antipathy especially from the white working class. The reasons that are given when race goes unmentioned—his “lack of experience,” his being alien and anti-American, and his elitism (“uppity”) are more often than not code words for their racism.

Still, in 2008 Obama has a very good chance of becoming President, because, for one reason, he can sufficiently transcend racial categories and stereotypes, and be acceptable to a good portion of the white electorate. Something no black candidate truly rooted in the black ethos could achieve. American society may still be racially divided, but for the exceptional black man or woman—the contemporary “Mr. Tibbs”— the odds for success have changed.

Even in South there are a number of black Congressmen, mayors, sheriffs, local officials and independent businessmen. But a muted form of racism still manifests itself in the Spartas of this country. In passing, the film suggests something of the economic plight and fear of ordinary Sparta blacks. And today if a town like Sparta’s black middle class does fairly well, black poverty is Mississippi remains severe. In 2000, their per capita income was $10,042, with 34.9% of African Americans in Mississippi having incomes below the poverty line and 21% of Mississippi’s African-American families earned less than $10,000 in 2001.

In the Heat of the Night was never intended to probe deeply into the nature of American social and political institutions. And though somewhat more penetrating about the personal relationships of blacks and whites, it remains a melodrama, bound to the turns of its plot and the solving of a crime. But the film does succeed in capturing something of the volatile racial atmosphere of the times, especially in the South. And it provides the audience with an idealized, heroic black character, who, at least for the time they watched the film, could neutralize, even undermine, the racist feelings most of them held.



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