In the Heat of the Night, 1967, directed by Norman Jewison
Sidney Poitier imbued the characters he played with power and unimpeachable morality. But that flawlessness, which he was repeatedly expected to perform, often translated into a sort of neuter elitism which excluded the social realities of Black America. This film, In the Heat of the Night (1967) places Poitier in a similarly awkward position, playing a liberated Northerner in the Jim Crow South, where his professional expertise is desperately needed and unambiguously resented. It sounds like a decent logline, but when you consider the off screen reality of the deadliness of racism, paired with our understanding of how “liberated” those Northern cities actually are for people of color, it appears once again that Hollywood is playing out its misguided fantasy of what an upstanding Black American should be, then patting itself on the back while Poitier bears the burden of representing his race with his hands tied and under incommensurate scrutiny.
Virgil Tibbs is one of Poitier’s most famous roles – a Philly detective, sharp witted and dapper, transplanted temporarily into a back water Mississippi town to assist the local assholes in a murder investigation. The scenario oozes exploitation, but Poitier’s powerhouse charisma clashes wonderfully with an A-list cast of Deep South rednecks whose faces are oily from the heat and twisted with contempt for his empowerment. Rod Steiger makes a noble effort to portray an only slightly open minded sheriff while mangling every diphthong. But his cadence is spot on as he smacks bubble gum to underscore his lines, and even as an absurd caricature of a soft hearted bigot, he carries the show. At Steiger’s side, Warren Oats acts the hell out of a sleazy, amoral version of deputy Barney Fife.
But the real standout performance in this film is a wholly gratifying interracial face slap between Poitier and white actor Larry Gates, which in 1967 amounted to a serious transgression. Anecdotally, the bit was not scripted, so perhaps Poitier is more subversive than he’s given credit for. Even if it was scripted, or Poitier was just being an actor following his gut, I find it hard to believe that the gesture wasn’t a deliberate political act. To think otherwise undercuts the strides that Poitier made in an industry that is not only stubbornly racist, but that has been churning out racist propaganda from its inception. In the Heat of the Night is worth watching just for those few frames of action, where our suspension of disbelief halts and the reality of Black American sentiment takes hold of the frame, punctuated by the unnervingly pitiful reaction that follows. —GJ