7 July 2008

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (Dir. Norman Jewison, 1967, US) - An indispensable historical and cultural document of sixties Americana

‘You take care. You here?’ Gillespie (Rod Steiger)
‘Yeah’ –
Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier)

After nearly forty years, the key element that really has stood the test of time in this historically seminal film is the performances by ‘Rod Steiger’ and ‘Sidney Poitier’. Unlike many of the Hollywood mainstream films produced by the new wave in 70s that have had a uniformly influential affect on contemporary film makers and American cinema, 1960s cinema has not fared too well. Many left wing liberal classics like ‘The Graduate’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night’ that were well observed reactionary films, responding to historical change in 60s America have largely lost their original emotional and social impact because the attitudes towards race, violence and sex has changed considerably.

The issue of ‘race’ has been a contentious one in American cinema especially when we consider how unfairly and negatively the African American community and its people have been represented in Hollywood films since D W Griffith’s notoriously romanticised the Klu Klux Klan at the turn of the century in the milestone that is ‘Birth of a Nation’. It was arguably Sidney Poitier who was able to challenge the racial stereotypes that had long been associated with the representation of African American’s in Hollywood cinema by finally offering the possibility of a black cinema.

Sidney Poitier was regularly referred to as the whipping boy, a star and performer who faced criticism from both his own people and the wider white working class American society. Black politicians and leaders criticised Poitier for taking roles that did little to further the political and social cause of the civil rights movement, and his relative silence in stark comparison to Harry Belafonte’s outspoken political values seemed to suggest Poitier was fearful of hurting his film career and position at the box office that was on the ascendancy. Though this maybe true to a certain extent, Poitier was a film star who was very much in demand and had commercial bankability, as he was part of a handful of stars in the sixties who could still more or less guarantee a box office hit. With ‘In the Heat of the Night’ Poitier redeemed himself in the eyes of the his black militant friends and was finally able to play a role that was not underwritten, but confrontational and radically oppositional in how it represented the figure of the new black man.

Unlike Poitier’s commercial appeal, Steiger had struggled to make a career in Hollywood, and though he had already achieved great acclaim for his work in films like ‘On the Waterfront’, his disillusionment with trying to make films that held a larger creative truth alluded him and he fled to Europe where he collaborated with Italian directors like Ermanno Olmi and Francesco Rosi. Steiger had returned to American shores with his intense and searing character study of a Holocaust survivor in Lumet’s ‘The Pawnbroker’ (1966), a film that got him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Many claimed that ‘The Pawnbroker’ was Steiger’s best work to date but he was surprisingly beaten out by Lee Marvin’s comic turn in ‘Cat Ballou’ for the Oscar. On reflection, the Academy got this one badly wrong as many continue to feel that ‘The Pawnbroker’ is one of the great method performances and that Steiger was overlooked purely because his films did not make money at the box office. When ‘In The heat of the night’ was released in 1967, it confirmed what many already knew about the versatility and range of an actor like Steiger and he was rewarded with the Oscar for Best Actor whilst Poitier enjoyed the pleasure of becoming the No 1 US box office star with three hit films in one year including ‘In the Heat of the Night’, a feat that not even Will Smith or Eddie Murphy have been able to achieve.

The character of Mr Tibbs was a role that Poitier had been waiting for all his life as it finally presented him with the opportunity to silence his critics and also put an end to the never ending cycle of crudely underwritten roles given to African American actors working within the Hollywood studio system, and for that reason alone was the film able to secure it’s place firmly in film history. Mr Tibbs, a homicide detective who works in the city of Philadelphia, was certainly a radical departure as the character was a symbolic expression of the intellectual, articulate and professional voice of civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Suddenly, Poitier, the black star and Tibbs, the black professional seemed to blur into one another, adding a genuine truth to the reality of change that was being referenced on screen. Even if in the eyes of black militants, this was just another film made by a bunch of white guys, they could do little to stop the cultural impact the film would have upon the image and identity of the new Black man that had risen out of the 60s, one that was resourceful, educated, empowered, financially independent, sympathetic and fiercely political in his attitudes towards society. Not only is Virgil Tibbs a much superior police detective, he seems to have a better grasp of interpersonal communication and knows how to empathise with low life criminals.

Steiger’s portrayal of Sheriff Bill Gillespie is played out with such ambiguity concerning his relationship with Tibbs that in moments of crisis and conflict, Sheriff Gillespie begins to question his own prejudices and subsequently grows to learn the need for tolerance, a characteristic that he has repressed in fear of being branded a liberal. Steiger seems to have got the harder job playing a bigot and excels in many of the scenes, eclipsing Poitier as a performer. Jewison was ingenious to disguise the actual racial politics of the film by inventing a murder mystery plot line that becomes redundant very quickly and the final twist at the end is both obvious and engineered primarily to sustain interest in a narrative concerned with fears and anxieties generated by the arrival of ‘the other’.

One of the most politically and emotionally powerful scenes occurs when Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) and Sheriff Gillespie (Steiger) confront Endicott (Larry Gates), an aging patriarch and plantation owner who represents the ideology of a vicious kind of conservatism and supremacy that was being challenged in all the middle class sections of American society. Upon being accused of murdering Colbert by Tibbs, Endicott slaps him but he never expects Tibbs to slap him back which he does, and with an anger that seems to encapsulate a history of discrimination and persecution towards black people. A bemused Endicott replies with, ‘There was a time...when I could have had you shot’, turning to look off screen as if he had just awakened to the reality of racial integration and emancipation. This moment sums up everything about racial politics in the sixties and suddenly it becomes quite easy to see how today such a film has become much more than just cinema, it has become an indispensable historical and cultural document of a time of great change.


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