So you know how I’ve made mention in previous 1001 Movie Blog Club posts about how I often appreciate the most baseline broadening of horizons that watching a foreign film can provide? I do so enjoy the insights into other cultures, the opportunity either to be grateful for what I already have from my own cultural perspective or to be exposed to another, possibly better, way of approaching life. And the reminders that, however different we may all be, there are more things that bind us together than separate us.
I had something of an opposite reaction while watching In the Heat of the Night; I found myself wishing desperately that the film were a dispatch from another country, or maybe another planet or a distant parallel universe. Alas, no, this is an American movie made about contemporary (at the time, less than fifty years ago) America. I have espoused many a time in the past my belief that everybody needs to own their own shit, and the naked, ugly racism of the southern United States during the civil rights struggle is about as far down in the shit as you can get, but it’s an indelible stain on our collective history. Any attempt to distance ourselves from it, to say “that all happened before I was born” or “that was them over there, not us over here” is an understandable reflex but a less than ideal way of coming to terms with it.
So here we are, with a black President in the White House and Paula Deen getting kicked off the Food Network, with the Supreme Court recently having gutted the Voting Rights Act, and with the George Zimmerman trial going on in Florida. The 237th Independence Day is tomorrow and, where I happen to live (right down the street from Bull Run Battlefield), the 150th anniversary commemorations of the Civil War are continuous and ongoing. It’s an interesting time to reflect on the difficult process of forging an integrated society that was underway in the middle of last century and is still imperfectly in progress today.
I think it’s important to recognize that the primary, unassailable value of In the Heat of the Night is as a fragment of the historical record. It captures something very uncomfortable but very real and very fundamental to understanding what problems our country and society continue to face (and, crucially, what the better elements at the heart of our country and society can do to surmount those problems). That alone makes it an utter no-brainer that this is a mandatory movie for everyone. It seems (to me) to be missing the point to debate the artistic merits of In the Heat of the Night, although that’s usually the default mode I go into when approaching any of the 1001 Must-Sees. It’s a good but not great straightforward detective story, with a good number of plausible red herrings to complicate matters but nevertheless a solution which requires the main investigator to follow up on a hunch and a whole lot of other things to coincidentally come together. The cinematography is workmanlike, with nothing particularly innovative or challenging standing out. The acting across the entire cast is about what I’ve come to expect from quality productions of the time period, pitched somewhere between theatrical artifice and realism, though of course Poitier and Steiger are both amazing. Poitier as Virgil Tibbs holds the whole movie together, and it is nothing short of awe-inspiring how he’s able to convey so much interior struggle and rage in spite of (or possibly because of) the veneer of implacable calm he keeps in place almost all the time. The moment in the first act when he is arrested at the train station, and Jewison goes for a close-up of his face as he’s braced against the wall, captures a lifetime of resentment and resignation via pure facial expression without Poitier saying a single word.
But Steiger arguably has the juicier role to play, and his performance in no way disappoints (as his Oscar for Best Actor readily attests). As Chief Gillespie, he has to contend with a murder that happened on his watch, his own semi-competent underlings, a stranger from out of town who complicates the investigation, the mindless prejudices of his community, and most of all, himself. Gillespie isn’t willfully ignorant, but he is complacent within his insulated world of local customs. Still, something inside him, some higher calling to notions of justice and the rule of law allow Gillespie to act, however unwillingly and uncharitably, as the bridge between Virgil’s world and his own. (No accident that when Gillespie collars the first suspect, Harvey, it literally happens on a bridge.)
Again, though, that’s all fairly beside the point. In the Heat of the Night is a statement movie, although it raises many more questions than it definitively answers. It’s historically significant for the specific turning point it depicts, for the ground it broke in everything from narrative (showing a black character striking a white character, with provocation and without immediate retribution) to technical details (using appropriate lighting to capture the facial features of a black actor). And it’s significant for the philosophical even-handedness it displays. In the course of the investigation, even Virgil himself is guilty of being blinded by his own prejudice, as he automatically suspects the misanthropically racist Eric Endicott. And by the end of the film, it’s not as though all the townspeople of Sparta have welcomed Virgil with open arms, as the biggest progress in race relations made is a rare smile Gillespie offers as he sees him off. In the Heat of the Night makes the arguably obvious, but also arguably necessary point that racism is counter-productive and ultimately self-destructive, but it doesn’t offer any easy answers as to what we should do about it. Even today, that remains for all of us to figure out.