In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Posted: November 20, 2013 in Movie Review
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In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Director: Norman Jewison

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant

The late 1960’s were a pivotal period in American history. Here was a decade where everything seemed to be happening all at once. You had a Presidential assassination, Man venturing into outer space, the Vietnam War, the hippie counterculture and, with it, arguably the greatest music since the days of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, etc. Also going on during this time was the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, we were a century removed from the time of the Civil War, but African Americans were still being treated unequally, as 3/5 of a person or less. This practice was especially prevalent in the South. Segregation went as far as to create separate bathrooms and water fountains. Prominent universities refused to admit students of color, and you couldn’t ride at the front of a bus unless you were white. If a black man struck a white man, he could get shot and no one would bat an eyelash, to say nothing of what would be done if there were murder involved. God help him if he became intimately involved with a white girl.

“In the Heat of the Night” was made during a time when race relations in the South were still dangerously ugly, and the movie’s plot reflects this fact. Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a homicide detective from Pennsylvania, is arrested for carrying an abnormally large amount of money in his wallet while waiting a train to take him home from Sparta, Mississippi after a visit with his mother. Virgil is black, and his arresting officer, Sam Wood (Warren Oates), believes that any black man with that amount of money on him must have stolen it. Sam’s superior officer, Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), has a murder case to solve. A man who was going to turn the entire community around with a new factory is the stiff, and Gillespie can’t see past his own prejudices long enough not to jump to the conclusion that Virgil must be the murderer. Virgil whips out his badge, and initially refuses to help with the investigation when asked, but is convinced otherwise when he has Gillespie call his chief to confirm his status as a detective.

Despite being one of THE great crime dramas, the movie has less to do with solving a murder than it does with the relationship between its leads. Here are two men who, when they first meet, allow the barriers created by the southern American society to cloud their perceptions of one another. Slowly, both Tibbs and Gillespie begin to realize as they work together on the murder case that, despite the obvious difference in their skin pigmentation, the two have even more in common than just their chosen line of work. Tibbs and Gillespie both live lonely lives, and they both also feel unwanted by this backwards southern community.

That a black man and a white man could find a commonality and a reason to work together might not seem unusual now (we currently have a black President and white Vice President), but it wasn’t something you saw much of in 1967, certainly not in the movies. Sadly, the segregation of the races was not the only persecution going on in those times. The Cold War had made an entire nation afraid of Communism (much in the same way we see a terrorist around every corner today). As a result, many people, including Hollywood actors, were not exempt from being labeled as social pariahs. One unfortunate casualty of the Hollywood blacklist was actress Lee Grant, who plays Leslie Colbert, the widow of the murder victim in “In the Heat of the Night.” Refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities led to Grant being unable to find work in theater or film for twelve years.

The 1967 Oscar winner for Best Picture has a lot going for it, but for me there are two scenes in particular which stand out. One involves another instance of someone whose aversion to those called by the not-so nice N-word is turned around by getting to know Virgil. Harvey Oberst has been picked up on suspicion of having committed the murder of Mr. Colbert, but Virgil doesn’t believe it possible based on prior evidence gathered while examining the body. He has refused to give up that evidence, and has been locked in the same cell with Harvey. Tibbs opens up to Harvey, lets him get comfortable, and listens to him tell his story about where he was on the night in question. Even at this early stage in his career, actor Scott Wilson (whom “The Walking Dead” fans have come to know and love as Hershel Greene) had a natural way of speaking that just makes you smile.

The other scene that is most impressive is the greenhouse scene. Tibbs and Gillespie have gone up to the large estate of Eric Endicott, about as racist an individual in the town of Sparta as you will find. He is courteous at first, showing off his plants and offering lemonade refreshments, but the conversation turns ugly when it’s revealed that the reason the officers have paid him a visit is that they are following up on a lead in their investigation. When Tibbs tries to interrogate Endicott, Endicott slaps him. Now, here’s where things get serious. Without missing a beat, Tibbs returns the slap. The first time I saw “In the Heat of the Night” in my community college Film Studies class, I knew without having to be told that I’d just witnessed one of the major turning points in cinematic history. The shock that scene had to have generated at the time, whether positive or negative, is something that might get lost on modern audiences.

I’d like to think that the United States as a whole have come a long way from the days of segregation, but the truth is that prejudice survives to this day. President Barack Obama, for all of his flaws, has been hit with a lot of undeserved criticism with no basis in reality. Don’t get me started on the “birther” stuff. Even now, there are places in this country where a young black man can be killed, and his death can be spun as somehow being his fault. But if the story presented in “In the Heat of the Night” is any indication, for all of the bad apples of society, there are still those willing to open their eyes and recognize that, after all, everybody’s human.

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