In the Heat of the Night

In the Heat of the Night, winner of 1967’s Best Picture Oscar, tells the story of a black detective from the urban north who helps a bunch of bumbling racists in a Mississippi backwater town solve a murder. Hailed in its day for its unswerving portrait of the bigotry, ignorance, and prejudice that infects the American South, Norman Jewison’s didactic film is a classic example of liberal guilt as entertainment.

This preposterous detective film relies on its audience’s belief — prejudice, really — in the complete backwardness of the American South. Indeed, it paints the white police force (the whole town!) as simple, hopeless rednecks, adrift in the complicated world of homicide investigation, and utterly in need of an urbane northerner for assistance. But, horror of horrors, this urbane northerner is a Negro!

If this particular approach seems ham-fisted, well it is. But, to a 1967 audience filled with the kind of northern liberals who had watched for years as the George Wallaces and Bull Connors of the South had steadfastly refused to curtail their segregationist practices, institutions, and laws, this kind of over-the-top depiction of Ole Miss made sense. It’s just that today, of course, you’ll need to watch it with the benefit of hindsight and historical perspective in mind.

The concept of liberal guilt as entertainment isn’t going anywhere, as the otherwise implausible success of Paul Haggis’ glorified B-movie, Crash – winner of Best Picture itself a couple years ago – attests. White, middle class, well-educated, Blue State, northern and urban individuals (and that includes similarly-described Canadians such as myself) generally love movies like this. Such films are designed to make us feel good about ourselves, about our convictions, our passion for justice and equality. But most importantly, they allow us to engage with the horrors of an unjust, un-equal world from the imagined perspective of a minority identity.

In the Heat of the Night was significant not only because it demonstrated Hollywood’s shifting approach to cultural politics – it was released the same year as another, similarly contrived Poitier vehicle, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? – but also because it put Poitier’s character at the centre of the action. In both of those celebrated 1967 pictures, we were Poitier, we were the victims of racism, and it was we who felt his frustrations. Indeed, we were all unwanted visitors at both the Drayton’s dinner table, and in the stifling hamlet of Sparta, Mississippi.

This proto-buddy film is saved somewhat by the intensity of the performances, especially from its two leads. Steiger impressively turns an intense, barking dog of a Chief of Police into a multi-leveled (if not complex) character through little more than rapid-fire outbursts and incessant gum-chewing. (His Oscar was certainly well-deserved, if only for his dedication to the character-making chomping: it is said that he went through over 250 packages of the stuff during filming!) And Poitier’s eyes burn with such passion, such incredulous anger, that he carries entire scenes on his shoulders. No matter how many times you watch it, his delivery of the classic line “They call me MISTER Tibbs!” remains incendiary. Perhaps this is why he has often claimed that In the Heat of the Night was his favourite of all of his films.

But, good as the performances are, isn’t it all a bit disingenuous? With such a contrived plot – how often did black police officers rise to the top of the Philadelphia Homicide Division in the mid-60s, and how likely is it that they would be leant out to solve murders in other jurisdictions? – the only way to get caught up in this film is to treat it as fantasy.

The problem is the film tries to have it both ways. Its fantastic plot drives an otherwise “realist” film offering broad social commentary. Consequently Jewison’s movie, from the opening credits, is in a double bind. The only way to overcome this sizable problem as an audience member is to want to identify with the politics of the film badly enough that you don’t bother thinking much about the nonsensical set up.

Think, again, of 2005’s Crash – if you can’t forgive the extraordinary unlikelihood of just about every single thing that happens in the movie, let alone the heavy-handed screenplay and its constant reminders of the film’s moralizing purpose, then it’s not much of a movie. But, if it makes you want to stand up and cheer when you are reminded of how liberal and good and righteous are your beliefs, then maybe, just maybe, it’ll work, and it’ll win Best Picture.

In the Heat of the Night stands as an early example of this kind of filmmaking – it may even be the archetype. As the two mismatched men fight each other at every turn before they finally work together to solve the crime (and, wouldn’t you know it, a sex-crazed white girl was the real bad guy here! Replace the old race stereotypes with gender and sexuality anxiety!), we are finally shown that these anxieties might just have something in common, after all. In the end, the white, racist, bigoted Chief of Sparta’s police force has gained a bit of respect for our hero, Mr. Tibbs. And all of us non-racists can feel good because we respected him all along.

This 40th Anniversary edition (which, incidentally, is off by a year) includes an interesting commentary track, a short documentary on Quincy Jones’ influential score, and two more substantial, self-congratulatory docs on the racial politics of the film.

RATING 6 / 10