“In the Heat of the Night” (1967)
With “In the Heat of the Night” director Norman Jewison breaches the unconscionable commercial wall of denial concerning racial injustice by way of silence (born entirely of an industry cowardice more concerned with box-office acceptability within the more hotbed states than any artistic or moral considerations) from a film industry self-congratulatory in its touting of such offenses as Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, a film purporting a gentle jab at guilty white liberalism while offering the depraved observation that the most accomplished black man in the world is arguably unworthy of the dumbest white woman on the block.
One evening in the sleepy town of Sparta, Mississippi, a body is discovered by patrolling police officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates). The ramifications of this homicide will prove to carry a weight of greater consequence to the police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) that might be confined to an isolated criminal investigation as the victim turns out to be industrialist Phillip Colbert, to whom the town was counting on economic rejuvenation with the construction of a new factory. Wood spots a lone black man, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) in the railway station and immediately arrests him as the most likely convenient prime suspect, being that he appears to be a transient and, more significantly, one who is black. However, when Gillespie soon discovers Tibbs is a Philadelphia homicide detective, his initial animus is colored by both a professional jealously and an ironic awareness that he is in desperate need of the detective’s very special investigative expertise.
Finely constructed (Jewison’s films tend to be overlooked models of craftsmanship), impeccably acted to the smallest part and atmospherically scored by Quincy Jones, the greatest strength of “In the Heat of the Night” is ultimately in the unshowy incisiveness of its screenplay by Sterling Silliphant, which improves (with one glaring exception) upon John Ball’s simplistic, stereotyping debut Virgil Tibbs novel; wherein every white town resident is a virulent racist and Tibbs is portrayed as an almost ethereal symbol of purity and perfection. In the novel, every thought and action of the white characters is predicated with race as its only motivating factor, while Tibbs is a virtual saint whose solving of the case involves less of the acumen of the professional detective and more far-fetched prescience achieved through the purity of goodness.
Silliphant has wisely pared away the behavioral absolutes on both sides of the race fence, enhancing the narrative by smoothing out the more inflexibly jagged edges of most of the principles, thereby humanizing the story into a more palatable and credible framework. This is significant as it places the representative burden of racism back onto how each individual reacts to an oppressive amoral social fabric rather than simply accounting for hatred being an indelible characteristic specific to a people of a particular regional location. Thus the central characters, as reimagined by Silliphant and Jewison, are granted the charity of a flexible humanity; no longer fixed into convenient, simplistic stereotypes solely defined by racial animus.
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