In the Heat of the NightNorman Jewison (USA 1967)Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger
Viewed:dvd12 March 2018
According to Walter Mirish the film’s producer, Sidney Poitier agreed to play Virgil Tibbs on one condition: that the film be not shot in the South.Poitier’s perspective was that as a black movie star he would be a sitting duck in any of the southern states, and that he had no inclination to be a target for any racist good ol’ boy pitching for glory.
Mirish agreed and the movie was shot in Sparta Illinois.The setting of Sparta Mississippi for the original novel being surely an ironic reference to the eponymous Hellenic slave state.
Poitier’s resolve accords with James Baldwin’s critique of In the Heat of the Night (‘Heat’).Although some black academics in film studies are positive about the film’s role in advancing the status of blacks, Baldwin digs a little deeper, prises under the skin of the movie.
‘Heat’ is not a police crime/mystery drama.It is a drama about race that uses a police procedural setting as a heightening intensifier of the issues.‘Heat’ is located in the hard ass violent world of Mississippi white supremacy.And the purpose of ‘Heat’s’ dramatic playing out, as understood through the role of the Sherriff, is to make white people feel good about themselves; to reconcile them to their history by use of and manipulation of comforting words gestures signs that tell that inform our white thoughts that times are changing, that we can now accept and respect the black, that he is no different from us, perhaps even equal.
It is remarkable, that aside from Virgil Tibbs, ‘Heat’ is almost completely devoid of black people.There is a brief scene in which Virgil is introduced to a black guy, living out of town, who will put him up, but this guy plays no further part in the script; the abortionist is of course a black woman, which has a double edged irony; in one of the general wide town scenes I noticed one black man.The butler isblack and the cotton pickers in the field are remote black figures.But it is an exclusively white world that Virgil enters.Like a knight in shining armour.As a moral exemplar in a land of beasts he does battle alone.
Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs is a shining example, a black virgin warrior.There’s no hanky panky on his part, he is pure and lives within himself without overt threat to white womanhood. Poitier is immaculately dressed in suit and tie, carries no gun.He is a figure of stature most of whose performance as Virgil is characterised by an affect image.Poitier’s face registers little reaction to the series of humiliations indignities grudging praise and hollow victories which Silliphant’s script doles out.Except for the moment when he is slapped in the face by the white land owner, whom he immediately pays back in kind, Poitier is an image that allows us the white audience to project onto him our hopes fears and illusions about race.Tibbs becomes a proxy mediating agent, assuaging white unease and discomfort even guilt about the history of race in the USA.
The film’s key white presence is Steiger’s sheriff, who plays a role which essentially takes the path of the convert, converting from historical bigotry to a more enlightened toleration. Virgil’s task is to support the emotionally choked and baffled sheriff as he gropes his way towards the final scene at the railway station.The sheriff carrying Virgil’s suitcase, waves him off with the croaked emotionally charged final line: “You take care of yourself, you hear!”
As Baldwin comments one traditional closure in the Hollywood product is the fade-out kiss. The kiss, which need not be a kiss, does not speak of ‘love’.It speaks of reconciliation; of all things now becoming possible. Baldwin’s comment is that in the sheriff’s last lines to Virgil, nothing is actually reconciled.No matter how much such a reconciliation may be hoped for, we are looking at people trapped in their own history.And what we see is that white americans have been encouraged to dream that the white world can simply wake up to a world that has been expanded to include a state of grace that comprises brotherhood with blacks.This promise of transformation is what the advertising industry sells, and it is ultimately what ‘Heat’ is selling. Blacks understand that they have to wake up from this dream.
Baldwin’s initial remark concerning ‘Heat’ were that ‘Heat’s’ initial proposition, that a black cop would chose to change trains in the middle of the night in a small Southern backwater, is preposterous “…defies belief.”In making this statement, which sort of echoes Poitier’s own fears, Baldwin is of course stating that he is seeing the film through the perspective of being black. Being black at that particular moment in time, how else could he see it?Being Black is the ground upon the which he understands this movie. That is to say that to see ‘Heat’ is a particular type of experience that invokes colour and history of colour.
For all that the film is, in its premise evasive of truth (as Baldwin notes when Virgil Tibbs leaves town, the sheriff will go back to his proper work which is to keep the blacks in their place.) in that it can be seen that, from the black perspective that it is time to wake up, the film delivers a positive that provides some sort of counterweight to its manipulation of the white psyche.