ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: In the Heat of the Night

WEEK 9- "I"


Nominees:  I Am a Fugitive on a Chain Gang, In Cold Blood, In the Heat of the Night, In the Valley of Elah, It Happened One Night

Winner:  In the Heat of the Night

Background:  The winner of five Academy Awards in 1967, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, In the Heat of the Night is as historically and culturally significant a film as you will find in history.   Directed by the great and always under-appreciated Norman Jewison (Moontruck, Fiddler on the Roof), the film struck more than a few chords that reverberated through the present time of the Civil Rights movement.  It's impact has not dulled one bit today, 45 years later.

Sidney Poitier stars as a sharp and intelligent Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs who is passing through Sparta, Mississippi by train visiting his mother.  Profiled and prejudiced as a black man with money he shouldn't have, Virgil is picked up at the train station on the suspicion that he is the culprit to a recent high-profile murder in town.  Badgered by the local officers and police chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger), they are quickly embarrassed to find out that he is a fellow cop.  Seeing his skill and intellect, Gillespie convinces Tibbs to stay in Sparta briefly and assist with the murder investigation.  The days that follow lead Tibbs and Gillespie deeper into more mystery, hidden motives, and possible cover-ups surrounding the crime at hand.  Beyond the investigation, stereotypes are slowly broken and respect begins to grow between two very opposite men.

Reaction:  5 STARS-- Even without the racial overtones that makes the film historic, In the Heat of the Night is a top-notch and superior mystery film and crime drama.  That strength of story and intrigue only adds to the tangible racial tension of the setting.  Both Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger comport themselves at an extremely high level of purpose and performance.  Both were established stars and award winners at the time, making this film the equivalent of a Denzel Washington/Tom Hanks team-up like Philadelphia, only with far greater hot-button topics and implications between their characters and in the general public viewing the film. 

Poitier gives Tibb a stoicism of strong convictions, yet creates a character that still exudes kindness and multi-dimensional emotional range.  Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Gillispie here and his performance of gradually-loosening bigotry and spite is incredible to watch.  You could argue that Poitier is the lead and Steiger is the support, but I feel their stories and characterization carry equal weight and impact.

My "Alphabet Film Club" colleague Tim Day said it best in his write-up, that "some films carry a greater weight and significance not just for their content... but for their place in history."  He couldn't be more right and I echo that sentiment.  For this film to display the bigotry, racism, and social class distinctions right in the middle of the actual time period is remarkable.  This films demands attentions and should still be seen and appreciated, even in this years beyond Martin Luther King's dream and with a African-American President in this country.  

With In the Heat of the Night portraying a black hero asserting himself and a white anti-hero spewing slanderous rhetoric with every "boy" opening clause, they created a volatile situation of stereotypes that eventually find respect and compromise.  Both characters change and they enforce that need to change within the Deep South setting of the story.  From the famous return slap that still sends shivers down your back to dozens of elements of symbolism, the struggle to stand up for proper respect, regardless of place and color, is what makes this film so great.

LESSON #1: THE IMPORTANCE OF SOLID POLICE WORK-- As aforementioned, In the Heat of the Night is a solid police mystery film even without the racially-charged theme.  With his "Yankee" pay and education, Virgil Tibbs brings not only new skill and technique to proper homicide investigation, but a righteous vigor to get the job done right and correctly.  With the inept local authorities ready to pin the murder in question on a the wrong man, Tibbs debunks circumstantial evidence and pushes the boundaries of his authority to see that the true suspect is caught and brought to justice.

LESSON #2: COMBATING STEREOTYPES AND BIGOTRY-- With the tension easily present throughout this film of black man challenging local stereotypes, the way in which Virgil Tibbs combats bigotry is important.  He goes about it with a firm, lead-by-example confidence and strength, without violent revenge or irresponsible hate and brashness.  He shows that you can stand up to bigotry by taking the proverbial high road.  At the same time, Gillespie learns how many of his stereotypes and wrongs are challenged by Tibbs' example and does so without loosing his edge as a cop and person of authority.  A good deal of this leads to Lesson #3.

LESSON #3: LEARNING TO RESPECT A MAN FAIRLY-- In looking past the racist and stereotypical differences between them, both men slowly learn to respect each other as not just cops, but as men.  To get respect, you can't just demand it.  Respect has to be earned.  We see that happen without cheesy "fall to knees" admissions of wrong or "bro-mance" whimsy hugs because these men are rocks of integrity.  Both men, regardless of their presumed differences, change their internal stereotypes towards each other and find a fellow man with, deep down, similar principles and goals that they stand for.  When those principles are challenge, the other man is there to support the other, their stance, and their play.