Saturday, December 29, 2012


(August 1967, U.S.)

I must confess that I haven't seen too many films that are highly charged and motivated by racism. In my youth, the big ones were Alan Parker's MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988) and Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING (1989). In 1988, I'd actually become a little more familiar with the new NBC television series IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT before I'd heard of the original 1967 film. Even as I'd also begun to truly discover the original film of THE PLANET OF THE APES (1968), it wasn't difficult to recognize just how racially motivated the film was. But I'm starting to digress a bit here...

Having watched Norman Jewison's IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT just recently for this blog, I've rediscovered just how racist this story really is. It's present day of 1966 and African-American northerner Virgil Tibbs (played by Sidney Poitier), passing through the town of Sparta, Mississippi, is picked up at the train station with a substantial amount of cash in his wallet at the same time a dead body has been discovered in the street. He's a black man with a lot of cash in a truly racist town so (naturally) he's the first person any of these redneck cops would arrest for the crime. White police Chief Bill Gillespie (played by Rod Steiger), prejudiced against blacks, jumps to the conclusion that he has his culprit but is embarrassed to learn that Tibbs is actually an experienced Philadelphia homicide detective who was passing through town at the wrong time of the murder. It's virtually unthinkable to the redneck hicks of this small southern town that Virgil is a thinking black man who dresses better, earns more money and knows the intellectual process of proper police work a whole lot better and more efficiently than these racist pigs. Gillespie, however, as it may be predicted in film, slowly learns to let go of his racist attitude and work with Virgil as a respected professional colleague. As the viewer of a murder mystery, you're taken along for the ride with step-by-step processes of how the murder will eventually be resolved and the true motives behind it. Honestly, though, the crime and its resolution become almost secondary because it's impossible to ignore that the real triumph here is Virgil Tibbs' strength and ability to overcome the racism of America's southland in the 1960s. It's also noteworty and impressive to slowly watch Gillespie become a better and wiser man in the end, exemplifying that, with true effort, racial divisions are capable of being overcome.

Perhaps the most intruiging moment of this film is when Tibbs accuses well-respected Sparta citizen Eric Endicott (played by Larry Gates) who actually owns a cotton plantation (you can probably visualize what sort of labor than entails - something right out of GONE WITH THE WIND) that he would have had a very good motive for murdering the man in question. Eric abruptly slaps Virgil's face for such a comment and Virgil doesn't hesitate in slapping this white man back with as much force. Tibbs' action was originally omitted from the screenplay, which stayed true to the original novel with Tibbs NOT reacting to the slap. However, when Sidney Poitier read the script he was purportedly uncomfortable with that reaction, as it wasn't true to the values his parents had instilled in him. Altering the scene to what we now know was important due to the ongoing battle for civil rights at the time, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, three years prior. This was one of the first times in any major motion picture where a black man reacted to provocation from a white man in such a way. I'm sure it ruffled a few white feathers, no doubt.

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won the Oscar for best picture of 1967 (the year I was born!). Personally, I think THE GRADUATE should have taken that high honor.

Favorite line or dialogue:

(upon having been slapped back by Virgil Tibbs)
Eric Endicott: "Gillespie?"
Chief Bill Gillespie: "Yeah."
Endicott: "You saw it!"
Gillespie: "I saw it."
Endicott: "Well, what are you gonna do about it?"
Gillespie: "I don't know."
Endicott: "I'll remember that!
(to Tibbs) There was a time when I could've had you shot!"

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