In The Heat of The Night is a testament to the collaborative nature of Hollywood. We watch Sidney Poitier step off the train. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography gives an instant texture to the world so the sweaty atmosphere is almost palpable around him.
However, one of my immediate recollections of the movie is always Ray Charles and Quincy Jones who help in creating a truly remarkable soundscape. Charles sings the title track (with lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman) setting the mood for one of the formative movies of a turbulent decade.
Although Rod Steiger becomes one of the film’s primary focal points as the gum-smacking, narrow-minded Sherrif Gillespie, it’s Warren Oates, one of the generation’s finest character actors, who’s our entry point into this community.
He’s a police officer sitting at a diner drinking a cola as the scrawny, beady-eyed attendant shoots a pesky fly with his slingshot. It’s a sweaty night in Spartan, Mississippi and already despite these mundane activities, there’s an uneasy equilibrium to the place.
Poitier has to navigate the film’s space all alone for the majority of the movie. There’s a black family who puts him up for a night, a servant (Jester Hairston) who looks at him a bit disapprovingly, a phantom black woman (Beah Richards) who runs a business at night, and of course, the host of blacks working the cotton fields. Otherwise, he’s all alone, isolated and alienated from those around him as a blatant outsider. His only solidarity is in the score and soundtrack.
If it’s not apparent already, In The Heat of The Night continues a conversation that automatically puts folks at odds and in opposition to one another. You have blacks and whites. You have North and South. You have rich and poor. All of them are visible in the movie.
For blacks in particular there are these daily barbs of indignity pervasive throughout the southern culture and totally baked into the system. Norman Jewison’s film (and Stirling Siliphants’s script) only has time to acknowledge some of them, both explicitly and implicitly.
It’s plain that when an influential man is found murdered, the first person suspected is the black man sitting at the train depot. It’s a guilty ’til proven innocent economy. Black men must also suffer the subtle humiliation of being called “Boy.” An out-of-towner like Tibbs will never hope to get a hotel. And even after weathering any number of indecencies, he finds himself cornered and physically intimidated.
The whole movie is about this even as Poitier reluctantly stinks around to bail out the less-experienced, backcountry police force. He’s doing them a favor that very few people are ready to accept.
In The Heat of The Night can theoretically be distilled down to two defining moments. The first is in the police station where Gillespie is railing on him, badgering him for all he’s worth. He asks what they call him in Philadephia and he seethes, “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! Poitier’s trademark intensity proves so gripping it’s maintained lasting resonance all these years later.
However, the film’s other defining moment is presaged by a lawn ornament calling to mind Flannery O’Connor’s wince-inducing short story “The Artificial Negro.” It’s found in an establishing shot of the Endicott Estate. Mr. Endicott (Larry Gates) owns the local cotton industry and effectively keeps the southern ecosystem alive and well from the antebellum days.
I hadn’t recalled how Tibbs trades small talk with Endicott when they pay him a house call in his greenhouse. They share a conversation about orchids, trading vernacular, and it feels amicable, at the very least. This is what they call southern hospitality. But then an ugly undercurrent is revealed and the conversation turns. Tibbs asks one question too many and gets a scathing response.
The old boy takes offense at being questioned on his own property, by a black man no less, and he lets him have it with the back of his hand. This is relatively unsurprising — another unseemly relic from the old days. What makes the moment is how Poitier strikes right back without a moment’s forethought or hesitation. It’s electric, and it’s as if all the years of southern tension are being brandished in one spontaneous reaction. It’s a show of righteous indignance, pride, and dignity. It’s also just such a human response.
Whether the moment was in the script, added later, or proposed by Poitier seems almost immaterial. It’s the fact that the moment is forever crystallized in cinema giving it a lasting cultural currency.
However, Norman Jewison’s movie does court a few more ideas. Oustide Gillespie prods Tibbs, “You’re just like the rest of us, ain’t yuh?” Poitier might be a shining knight, but his character is still wounded, proud, and simmering with pent of emotions submerged just below the surface. He wants to put Endicott away and make him pay. Gillespie’s just trying to do a job, but Tibb’s drive is something more personal. He’s looking for vengeance. It’s also enough to warrant deadly backlash.
I recently heard an interview with Jewison reminiscing about Poitier and the filming of In The Heat of The Night in the wake of his passing. The director said the following:
“I’d wanted to shoot in the South; the book takes place in Georgia and we’d moved the story to Mississippi for the movie. But we had to shoot it in a town in Illinois, called Sparta because Sidney would not go south of the Mason-Dixon line. He and Harry Belafonte…they had been arrested and attacked by guys in pickup trucks, so he refused to shoot down South.”
“Later in the shoot, I wanted to shoot some exteriors in actual Southern locations, so we talked about going to Tennessee. ‘I’ll give you four days, Norman,’ Sidney told me. So we all went down to this small town with one hotel…and it was ‘whites-only.’ So all of us, the cast and crew, ended up in a Holiday Inn a little ways away, which allowed both Blacks and whites.”
“And I’ll never forget, these pickup trucks came into the parking lot in the middle of the night, honking their horns and waking people up. I got a little nervous, so I called my crew and told them, “Get the biggest guys in the grip department and electrical department, get them over to Sidney’s room right now, we have to protect him.’ Then I called Sidney’s room and I said, ‘Don’t worry, Sidney, we will take care of everything.’ He said, ‘I’m not worried. I’ve got a gun under my pillow.”
“So the first one of them comes through my door, I’m going to blow them away.’ Thank god nothing happened, but this naive director from Canada suddenly understood the extent of American racism. I began to really get just how vicious things were.”
I’ve heard In The Heat of The Night labeled as a do-gooder film, but this seems to minimize not only the movie but Poitier in particular. I find it to be a fundamentally gripping police procedural and this is without thinking about a specific message potentially being crammed down our throats.
This is a testament to the unnerving milieu of the southern town being evoked. It’s the cinematography of Haskell Wexler that feels alert and alive in how it lights and considers the fully-colored spaces. It comes down to this antagonistic rapport of Steiger and Poitier, two very different actors who prove themselves to be exceptional sparring partners as mediated by Norman Jewison.
Surely Poitier had no illusions about what he was portraying. Jewison’s remarks make this very plain. And so he took his image and his part in the movie very seriously. Is it a fantasy about blacks bending over backward to help whites, and then irredeemable racists being redeemed right in front of us? You could say that. But even this seems to oversimplify the picture and sell it short.
This is the movie where Poitier burned with righteous anger and slapped a white man in retaliation, out of his own human pride. Surely isolated moments like these belie any facile interpretation. Because I can’t totally disregard how these scenes make me feel on a fundamental level — how they move me.
How can I have failed to mention Lee Grant, who was finally allowed to leave the Blacklist behind and prove her chops improvising some heart-rendering passages opposite Poitier. They show her ache and his tender concern toward a grieving widow, but also a fellow human being. It’s like some kind of dance they do together.
Or consider how Steiger, still chewing his cud, tells Virgil to “take care.” It’s not much; the exchange is almost sheepish, but it’s trusting we understand the implications. If it’s not an apology, then it’s some form of an olive branch.
This movie doesn’t remedy “the race problem” as it was called in generations past. Its fissures are still supremely evident and ugly. Still, these human exchanges with Poitier at the center, model something deeply healing. To see them on the screen feels validating and also like a balm. Righteous anger has its place, truth has its place, and so does seeing the inherent dignity in others. Rest in peace, Mr. Poitier. You were one for the ages.
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I think I owe myself a rewatch of this movie after reading your take on it. It’s been way too long!
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