In the Heat of the Night

February 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I recommitted to my goal of making it through the two AFI Top 100 Movies lists, and one of the most interesting thing about the two lists is how you can see critical tastes changing–especially in regards to race–even in the span of a decade. Movies like Dances with Wolves, Giant, or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner–initially regarded as racially progressive for their intersection-of-two-cultures plots–were now seen as overly sentimental, unrealistic, and heavily imbalanced towards the white side of the story. Movies like In the Heat of the Night and Do the Right Thing–presenting grittier, less rosy-eyed portraits of race relations–replaced them, alongside pictures like The Shawshank Redemption and Spartacus that had subtler themes of identifying with the oppressed. In perhaps the most blatant example, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was almost literally replaced with his later Intolerance, substituting a pro-bigotry message with an anti-bigotry one–and while Intolerance is certainly more palatable from a humanitarian standpoint, and more interesting from a storytelling point of view, it seems a little like cheating to pretend that its technological advances were anything compared to Birth of a Nation‘s. It’s not a fight I’m compelled to go to the mat for, but I do think this kind of historical revisionism ultimately does more harm than good–Birth of a Nation was a great film based around an awful story, period, and removing it from the list doesn’t make people in the early days of the 20th century any less racist than they were. Ultimately, cinematic superlative lists need to decide if they’re grading on technical innovation or artistic achievement (however you define that)–Birth of a Nation shows exactly why it’s so dangerous to grade both simultaneously, as the AFI list purports to do. Otherwise you might come across as tacitly condoning the acts of the Klan when, in reality, all you mean is that you think Griffith’s invention of “close-ups” was really neat.

Before watching, I was familiar with three parts of In the Heat of the Night already: the scene where the police officer arrests Sidney Poitier in the train station and repeatedly refers to him as “boy,” the part where he snaps, “They call me Mister Tibbs,” and the part where an older white man slaps him and he returns the slap full-force. I loved finally seeing them in their proper context; it’s like the experience I had reading Jack Gilbert’s “Michiko Dead” on its own and then reading it in the context of The Great Fires. That poem and those moments seemed less contrived, less trying to prove a point, more trying to tell a story when taken as part of a full work. This will sound ignorant of me, but I didn’t realize that they were making films like this in the 1960s, let alone that films like this were winning multiple Academy Awards–the depiction of racial tensions seemed more realistic to its time than many pictures’ being made today. It helped that the movie was set up as a mystery rather than a “problem picture”; it avoided a lot of the potential derailings into heavy-handedness while still managing to touch on some serious issues. I’m reading Donald Bogle’s wonderful book Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies & Bucks right now, on the history of African-Americans in cinema, and I’m surprised that he gave this film what was essentially a sentence-long review of “Sidney Poitier plays another variation on the perfect black man,” because to me, there were several very transgressive moments in this film–including, but not limited to those I noted above–that pushed the (primarily white) audience to identify with Poitier’s character in the same way that horror movies often force the mostly male audience to identify with a female lead.

My favorite moment of the film occurred right after Poitier returns the rich white man’s slap and stalks out. The white man’s black servant, who’s been sent to the kitchen for a tray of lemonades, returns just in time to witness this exchange, and responds with a small, sad shake of his head. Its meaning is entirely ambiguous: Is he disappointed in Tibbs for stepping out of line? Pleased but knowing he has to play the part of loyal servant? Openly upset with his employer? Annoyed that he got all those lemonades ready for nothing? I’ll admit that I’m not the kind of person who usually notices small details in films like this unless I see them multiple times, but rarely has such a tiny moment been so perfectly played.

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