In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Approved. I'm surprised that this movie hasn't been reexamined by the MPAA because it would probably get a PG-13 or an R. It's right on that cusp. It's full of racism, which is a central theme. But if you were ticking boxes to get an MPAA rating, there's partial nudity, murder, sexuality, and abortions to contend with. It's got a lot of content that, while not necessarily visually graphic, are heavy themes for a movie from '67.
DIRECTOR: Norman Jewison
I actually got a ton of work done, so I have time to write my blog today. Okay, I'll confess. I just didn't want to do the blog yesterday because I was technically ahead of schedule and was plumb-exhausted. I was falling asleep sitting up. But then I ran into the predicament of having actual, real-world work that started piling up and then I thought I was going to fall behind. Luckily, I'm motivated by productivity, hence the fact that I can now write about In the Heat of the Night.
I've seen this one before. I got it as a gift and it was a welcome gift. In the Heat of the Night is one movie that almost doesn't forgive and I completely appreciate it for that stance. It gives a little. I'm talking about the temptation to have Tibbs and Gillespie reconcile. I suppose I might be debating this idea all through this blog, but I honestly think that Tibbs doesn't really forgive Gillespie so much as have hope for change. I'm really putting the cart before the horse here. If the entire movie is about the stubbornness of institutionalized racism, particularly when it comes to law enforcement, there are a few moments where it hopes for a brighter future. I mean, we're living in the now and the past decade has either seen us backslide a ton or realize that we have a longer way to go than we thought we did. But there are moments, like I said, that show that we might be able to move forward from the bigoted crap that we deal with.
The two moments I'm talking about are when Tibbs stays at Gillespie's house and the final shot between Gillespie and Tibbs. The former example is this great misdirect. See, the entire movie makes you want to see Gillespie and Tibbs as friends. There's nothing more cinematically satisfying (hyperbole) as seeing people who rub each other the wrong way eventually become the closest of friends. It's the buddy cop dramedy that we keep returning to in Hollywood. But the problem isn't like most buddy cop stories. In most situations, the difference in ideology is often one where both characters represent extreme ideals that have merit. Both characters could learn from one another and their merging makes them both better people. But with the case of Gillespie and Tibbs, Tibbs is right; Gillespie is wrong. Sure, Tibbs is a fallible person. I'm going to talk about his witch hunt later. But the issue between Gillespie and Tibbs isn't one where they could learn from each other. Tibbs is absolutely morally right. From moment one, Gillespie comes across as bullheaded and racist as the day is long. Tibbs's entire persona is one of righteous patience. He puts up with so much and he epitomizes the Black experience with police.
So when Tibbs stays at Gillespie's house, it is a step forward for Gillespie. He even claims that Tibbs has the rare honor of ever having visited Gillespie. There's something to look at there. While Gillespie is definitely opening doors that he never would have considered before, he's doing so 1) under duress and 2) not really changing his point of view. Tibbs, to a certain extent, isn't really a person to him. At the front of his consciousness, Tibbs doesn't have a personal tie to Gillespie. He will be gone back to Philadelphia in a day or so. But the real deep part of his brain, which is both conscious and unconscious, views him as less than human. Perhaps Gillespie sees this as an olive branch, demonstrating how much he has changed. But his actions later in the scene really throw a wrench into that. When Tibbs bonds with Gillespie, it seems like the two are going to become unlikely friends. For all of Tibbs's loathing of this slovenly racist, he too offers an olive branch to Gillespie. But it is Gillespie who sees this moment of sympathy as something offensive. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, the worst thing that a Black man do is to feel bad for someone who is White. I applaud the fact that this scene plays out the way it does. It would almost be silly to see the two become genuine friends and it would be absurd to think of them as friends. (Hence, why there should never have been a TV show...)
But the end smile. That end smile kind of bugs me. It doesn't make-or-break bug me. But it also kind of feels like a betrayal. The entire movie doesn't let Gillespie and the town of Sparta off the hook. Their true colors fly loudly and proudly and their ignorance is on parade for the lion's share of the movie. Gillespie is shown to be borderline incompetent as a sheriff and the only man who have a good head on his shoulders is Tibbs. And Sparta, particularly Gillespie, is awful to him. Taking into consideration that Gillespie can't stop viewing him as a Black man soiling his White town, the mutual respect that they show to each other at the end isn't really earned. Tibbs shouldn't respect Gillespie. While Gillespie made strides, it was absolutely the bare minimum needed to get the case solved. I would even consider Officer Wood to be a better moment of hope than Gillespie. Wood starts off the story arresting Tibbs, manhandling him, and not allowing him to speak. He finds Tibbs to be a murderer simply because he is Black. But by the end of the film, Wood shows a genuine admiration for Tibbs. He gets mad at him, sure, but only because of his own self-interest.
If you place Wood at the train station with a sulking Gillespie in the car, that's an ending that kind of works. Wood owes Tibbs his life. Wood is facing a murder charge and hits rock bottom before Tibbs offers him a life jacket. When Wood comes out of the jail cell, he's an honestly different man. It was his friends that put him in jail and it is the man he abused who gets him out. All this kind of leads up to my questioning why there's a TV show of this.
Now, I've never seen the show. I am woefully unprepared to write about this. But when I prep a blog, I have the imDb page up in another tab to look up names of actors and some production history stuff. In my ignorance, I clicked the link for the TV show instead of the film and every picture looks like Tibbs and Gillespie become great friends due to their wacky antics. Boy, that seems like a backwards step, am I right? The entire film is about the fact that it takes a life-or-death experience to shake people from a world of bigotry and that's with just the sense of hope that the movie implies. How can you make these characters friends and still stay true to anything that Jewison or Poitier made here? It's the foundation of the story and you turned it into a fun procedural drama? I don't care for one bit.
The odd thing about In the Heat of the Night is that the plot absolutely does not matter. For a really cool crime drama, it ultimately doesn't matter who killed the real estate developer. Honestly, the reveal of who the killer is completely secondary to the fact that Tibbs is being hunted by the town. I mean, the killer being the first person you see on screen is almost a cliché at this point. There is no real reason why that guy killed the victim. His confession shows that he was just nuts and that there was no grand plan to tell this story. Nope, Tibbs is really good at figuring out timelines but not motives. It's all about character, which is what makes In the Heat of the Night watchable over-and-over. And I can't even deny that this movie is even formatted like a procedural drama. We go through all of the steps expected of a crime drama, but it is the most character driven story that follows this format that I can think of. It's a really good movie.
But I can't help but think that the last shot just bugs me enough. I might actually have a hard time recommending this because so much rides on the end. Maybe I'm being too hard on it. Maybe it's just the idea that Officer Wood should be replacing Officer Gillespie. But it is just flawed enough to keep it off that list for perfection.
10/6/2022 12:58:25 pm
I like this movie as much as you do. I suspect that the final scene is a corporate compromise so that the film will be played in the south or it is a compromise to have the stars in the final scene together. It does hold up and remind us of the injustice we are dealing with some 60 years on.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.