Friday, 28 February 2014

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Long Hot Summer

Sometimes a film needs to make a bold political statement, no matter how brash or unsubtle. In 1967, amidst America’s most troubled period of racial hatred, one movie stood out for exactly that reason. In the Heat of the Night is about a black detective overcoming a town’s endemic prejudice to solve a controversial murder case. Just six days before the film collected its five Academy Award wins, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. If ever there was a moment to deliver a stubborn, indignant and sincere polemic against racial discrimination, this was the occasion.
None other than the first black Oscar winner and Hollywood superstar, Sidney Poitier, played the lead role.
Detective Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is a reluctant hero drawn into the stifling intrigues of the Jim Crowe deep-South. He’s only visiting a relative but segregated Mississippi does not welcome passing faces too kindly. When a murdered corpse is discovered, suspicion immediately falls on the out-of-town stranger with plenty of cash in his wallet. Once some local ruffians drag the Philadelphia cop into the police station the scene is set for an almighty showdown between a provincial sheriff (Rod Steiger) and his northern counterpart: 
Sheriff GillespieWell you’re pretty sure of yourself, ain’t yer Virgil? Virgil... that’s a funny name for a n***** boy that comes from Philadelphia. What do they call yer up there?
Virgil TibbsThey call me MISTER Tibbs!
Eventually, the sheriff comes to realise his mistake and teams up with Tibbs to catch the real killer. Despite their initially frosty encounter, the two lawmen earn each other’s respect over the course of their investigation. By the end of the film Gillespie comes to defend his new colleague against the bigotry of his fellow townspeople.
From the viewer’s perspective, the whodunit element is a mere sideshow to the real issue of racial segregation. Through the passage of time, I have forgotten the identity of the killer. But what survives in my memory is the integrity of two fascinating central characters, who took the buddy-cop genre to a new domain.
For its time, the script took a controversial and uncompromising look at modern America. In one of the most famous scenes Tibbs is slapped by a white suspect, at which point Tibbs returns the blow. “You saw it...well, what are you gonna do about it?” the bemused interviewee says to Gillespie. Towards Tibbs he adds, “There was a time when I could have had you shot.”
Quincy Jones’ classy soundtrack adds the perfectly sweet icing to the cake. For the title track Ray Charles blows the roof off with a soulful bluesy number (see video below). How could you possibly ignore the civil rights cause when Charles sings its merits so melodiously?
Mark it on the Hollywood timeline, 1967 is the year the movie industry embraced equality.


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