Back to our Best Picture Winners . . .
Finally! An Oscar winner I actually like!
Sorry. SPOILERS today, for I am weak and lazy. Though this movie did come out eighteen years before I was born, so. Limited sympathies and all that.
When a wealthy businessman is murdered, a white police chief in a small southern town is forced to ask for help from a black homicide detective. Hard core racism ensues.
1. I enjoyed In The Heat of the Night, but I’m not sure exactly how many critically insightful things I have to say about it. I expect it doesn’t quite have the shock value it once did — still significant and affecting, yes. But there’s one scene in particular — when Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) slaps the white man who just slapped him — that seems to have been particularly revolutionary at the time, that had audiences literally gasping. But in 2015, the same scene merely comes of as an extremely satisfactory boo-yah moment, awesome but not actually gasp worthy. Or at least seemed so to me, anyway.
Lest it sound like I’m saying, “Cool beans, racism is over,” I should mention that some aspects of the story, unfortunately, still feel very present today. For instance, when Virgil is suspected of — and actually arrested for — murder simply because he’s a black man sitting on a bench . . . that doesn’t seem like a very far cry from modern day America, where loitering is a crime and a hoodie indicates dangerous ill-intent, provided, of course, that the people standing around wearing those hoodies have brown skin, not white.
2. Sidney Poitier is easily the star of the show here, so it kills me that not only did he not win for his role In the Heat of the Night, he didn’t even get nominated.
For some reason, I always want to think that this is the movie Poitier earned his historic Best Actor award for, but that actually happened four years earlier with Lilies of the Field. (Which, I guess, is a movie about nuns in the desert or something? I don’t know; I wasn’t riveted by IMDb’s plot description.) It’s actually Rod Steiger, playing Chief Gillespie, who won Best Actor, and while I think Steiger does a good job with the part, I was overall much more impressed with Poitier’s work. I like Virgil. He’s an intriguing mix of eloquence, scorn, and repressed fury. In many scenes, he practically radiates with anger that’s riding right under the surface — and I’m always impressed when actors do that well. (Many try. Not all succeed. Then again, perhaps Poitier had the lifelong experiences in which to draw from — for instance, he apparently refused to film this movie in the South because of that unfortunate time his life was threatened there by the KKK. I can see why that might sour the idea of a return trip.)
3. Anyway, Poitier’s great. The relationship between Virgil and Gillespie is interesting to watch unfold, as it’s based on mutual need, disdain, and — eventually — grudging respect. One of the things I like best about this movie is that these two never become best buddies, like at the end of the movie, they don’t hug it out and decide that Friendship is Magic and Racism is Wrong. The movie does end on a positive note between the two: Gillespie tells Virgil to take care of himself, and Virgil smiles widely at him — but I’d say this moment is about reaching a certain level amount of empathy for one another, not becoming BFFs, you know? These guys aren’t likely to go bowling together. I’m not anticipating a pen pal relationship in their future.
Which is why I was very surprised to discover that In the Heat of the Night became a TV show — in my lifetime, even — in which Virgil Tibbs comes back to Sparta, Mississippi and apparently decides to work as a police detective there with his old buddy, Gillespie.
This is like when Bill Murray inexplicably decided to stay in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania except, you know, so much worse — because the good people of that town never tried to lynch him.
Seriously, I enjoy Virgil’s ongoing dilemma about whether he should stay to help solve this murder or whether he should get the hell out of dodge while he still can, even if I was constantly telling my TV screen, “No, man. Just go. Just leave these assholes and, while you’re at it, why don’t you go beat your boss over the head with a dead fish for either not realizing or not caring about the very real, very mortal concerns you are facing down here.” I buy Virgil’s initial “Fuck this place, I’m leaving” plan, just as much as I buy his later “Fuck this place, I’m solving this murder if it kills me” approach, and I like that, that his decisions never come off as cheap or idiotic to me. But that he apparently moves back to a town where he was arrested not once but twice, where people treated him like shit and repeatedly tried to kill him? No. NO. This is not okay.
I also didn’t know that Sidney Poitier starred in two sequels to this movie, although I don’t believe he goes back to Sparta in either of them. I may try these out someday. The TV show, I don’t know. Even for Carroll O’Connor, I feel like I’d just be muttering, “Bullshit bullshit bullshit,” to myself the whole time.
4. The thing that maybe amused me the most about this movie is how Diner Guy Ralph maliciously keeps hiding pie from one particular police officer.
I’m not sure why. It just tickled me.
Of course, Diner Guy Ralph ends up being the bad guy as well, something I did guess, but sadly not because of his fiendish pie-hoarding habits or even my keen detective-like instincts. Per usual, my tentative guess came from my keen writer instincts instead: most murder mysteries introduce their killers early rather than later, and there aren’t many viable suspects in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. I doubted both Sam and Delores (although the latter was obviously involved somehow), so that only left me with one real option.
It turns out, Diner Guy Ralph wasn’t trying to murder the dead guy after all, just rob him. See, he needed the money to pay for his girlfriend’s abortion. I like that, in the end, this wasn’t some big conspiracy or corporate crime, that the unbelievably racist dude who owns the cotton picking company was a red herring all along. (I’m sure “unbelievably” sounds like a weird word when clearly everyone in Sparta is awful, but this guy’s whole speech comparing this certain type of orchid that needs particular care and feeding to “the Negra” still kind of gut-punched me with its nearly breathtaking racism.)
5. Finally, about that girlfriend — I hate her.
If Delores was the only female character in the movie, boy, would this be a full-on rant because I’m really not even sure what’s supposed to be wrong with her. (Drugs? Not particularly bright? Nymphomania?) All I know is that, between the actress reciting all her dialogue like she’s already halfway to orgasm and the character’s inclination to walk around the house at night without a top on, she is incredibly annoying. I’m guessing she’s supposed to be this young, provocative thing, but really, she’s just terrible. I wanted to shake her, like a lot, especially for someone who’s probably only got four minutes of actual screen time.
Thankfully, the dead guy’s wife is perfectly fine and I enjoyed Mama Caleba well enough. So I’ll restrain the rest of my feminist ire. For now.
Gillespie: “Any reason you have to leave today?”
Virgil: “Lots of reasons.”
Gillespie: “I got the motive which is money and the body which is dead.”
Virgil: “There’s white time in jail and there’s colored time in jail. The worst kind of time you can do is colored time.”
Gillespie: “You look at bodies all the time in Philadelphia. Why can’t you look at this one?”
Virgil: “Why can’t you look at it yourself?”
Gillespie: “Because I’m not an expert!”
Gillespie: “I do want to thank you for offering such a powerful piece of manpower as Virgil Tibbs.”
I enjoyed this. I don’t know if I loved it, but its a well-crafted mystery supported by solid acting performances, and its cultural significance cannot be denied. And frankly, after Gone with the Wind and The French Connection, I’m just happy to find something award-winning that I even like.
Don’t be a racist dickweasel. Or, at the very least, ask for identification before you pick up a complete stranger for murder, especially when you have absolutely zero evidence to back your claim.