Saturday, October 12, 2013

In The Heat of the Night Starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger star in this absorbing crime drama set against the volatile backdrop of racism and segregation in a small Southern town.

In the Heat of the Night is an important film for a number of reasons. In addition to being a compelling and extremely well-acted crime drama, it resonates with great historical and cultural significance. The historical context in which the film was released should be noted when evaluating it. Upon its release in 1967, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed a mere three years prior, and Jim Crow segregation laws had just recently been taken off the books but were still practiced in parts of country. The film reflects the explosive state of race relations in the U.S., particularly in the South, during the 1960s.

Sidney Poitier plays Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs who finds himself stuck in a bigoted Mississippi town where he reluctantly assists the chief of police in investigating the murder of a wealthy industrialist. Northerner Tibbs represents change and a new way of thinking in a place that is stuck in a racist past. It’s a past where black people "knew their place," a place where a black man was called boy even if he was in his eighties.

Tibbs is immediately at odds with his surroundings and is looked upon with either hatred or curiosity by all those he encounters. Even the black residents of the town don’t know what to make of him and eye him cautiously. Tibbs' character embodies a new mindset towards race relations. The residents of the town had never seen a black man like him before, and that alone compels some of them to reevaluate their outmoded thinking and attitudes towards black people.

As was the case in a number of Poitier's roles at the time, Tibbs' character served as a categorical refutation of the procession of negative and stereotypical black characters that had been perpetuated by the film industry for decades. He was the polar opposite of every black racist stereotype that had come before him. Some of the worst of these stereotypes include the stupid, lazy coon; the obsequious and shuffling jiggaboo; and the brutish, depraved savage as depicted in D.W. Griffith's controversial film classic The Birth of a Nation. And some of these stereotypes are still found in films today, of course in different, less obvious incarnations.

In direct contrast to those stereotypes, Tibbs' character is poised, intelligent, cultured and brave. He is man a of high principles and moral integrity who bows to no man, white or black. The characters Poitier played were sometimes criticized for being too perfect, that they were more symbolic ideals than real people. But these roles were necessary in counterbalancing the numerous negative images of African Americans promulgated by Hollywood filmmakers.

To be sure, Poitier wasn't the only black actor out there who was rectifying these negative images, but he was at the forefront because he was such a big star. So fair or not, a lot of it landed on his shoulders alone. But Poitier is such a commanding and charismatic actor that he brought those iconic roles to life and made them very human.

Rod Steiger earned a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for his superb portrayal of the hard-nosed and hot-tempered Police Chief Bill Gillespie. He and Poitier have incredible chemistry in their scenes together. At first glance, the two men are a study in contrasts. Whereas Gillespie is coarse and quick-tempered, Tibbs is unflappable and polished; Gillespie is sloppy and overweight, while Tibbs is trim and dapper.

However, upon closer examination, the two have much more in common than first meets the eye. Both are proud men who stand by their principles, even if their beliefs and actions go against the grain. And both are quite stubborn. What's brilliant about Gillespie's character is that at first he seems like the typical racist redneck police chief that we've seen in films many times before, but underneath there are several layers of complexity. Near the end of the film, the two men have formed, if not exactly a friendship, a mutual respect for one another and a bond that crosses the racial divide as well as the divide between the North and South.

Director Norman Jewison does a masterful job in capturing the mood and look of a small Southern town during a hot, muggy summer. And he drew great performances not only from Poitier and Steiger but from the rest of the cast as well. Some of the standouts among the supporting cast include Warren Oates as the dim-bulb but likable deputy Sam Wood, Beah Richards as abortionist Mama Caleba, Larry Gates as powerful plantation owner Eric Endicott and Anthony James as the creepy diner counterman Ralph Henshaw. The little hunched-over dance James does to the song "Foul Owl on the Prowl" is classic.

In the Heat of the Night is based on American author John Ball's novel of the same name, and screenwriter/producer Stirling Silliphant does a great job in adapting it for the big screen. Probably the most significant thing the film accomplishes is that it's a gripping crime drama that also effectively addresses issues of race without knocking the viewer over the head with it. In addition to Steiger's win, the film took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay at the 1967 Academy Awards.

(originally published at

 In the Heat of the Night at Amazon

No comments:

Post a Comment