Sunday, August 2, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "In the Heat of the Night" (1967)

Left to right: Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

In the Heat of the Night
Release Date: August 2, 1967
Director: Norman Jewison
Written By: Stirling Silliphant (screenplay), John Ball (novel)
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Running Time: 109 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Actor (Rod Steiger)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Sound
-Best Film Editing

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Director (Norman Jewison)
-Best Sound Effects

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Bonnie and Clyde
-Doctor Doolittle
-The Graduate
-Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

And the winner is...

Racism remains a touchy things when it gets recognized at the Oscars. While society has moved progressively over the several decades, there's still the taboo that obvious lessons can't make for good stories. With many recently accusing the Oscars of being segregationist thanks to predominantly white nominees in 2015 and the absence of crowd favorite Selma, it feels like there's still something to say. Yet in 1967, things were possibly even more controversial and the chance of a film like director Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night being a smash hit wasn't guaranteed. In fact, its danger is likely why it struck audiences so profoundly alongside the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. It didn't just give the message that racism was wrong. It taught that everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law.

There's a lot in the production of In the Heat of the Night that is mired in the racism of the time. The most noteworthy came from actor Sidney Poitier - who was the most successful black actor of his time and held influence over production. He insisted that the film be shot predominantly in the north. This was due to unfortunate instances in which he and Harry Belafonte were almost killed by KKK members in Mississippi. As a result, all of the interior shots were filmed in the north with only a few exterior shots filmed in Tennessee - as there was no visual substitute. During this portion of the shoot, Poitier was reported to have slept with a gun under his pillow and received countless threats from racist groups in the area.

As the film's title suggests, this story took place in the hot summer. However, it was shot in the winter season. As a result, actors had to have ice cubes under their lips prior to shooting to avoid their breath appearing. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler also helped to make this the first film to feature proper lighting for a black actor. The one major change from John Ball's book is in a scene where Poitier is slapped and doesn't react. Poitier claims that it wasn't natural and felt that along with the ongoing Civil Rights Movement, that his retaliation would have a bigger impact and show that Poitier's character had power. As a result, it became a crowd favorite scene and remains one of the film's most iconic moments.

There was no guarantee that it was going to be a success, either. Due to the divided nation's views on racism, many would believe that the film wouldn't sell in the south despite taking place in Mississippi. The producers had to convince the studio that it would make a profit despite this. During an advanced screening, Jewison was initially disappointed to see that audiences were laughing at various moments. Editor Hal Ashby convinced him that it wasn't that the drama was mistaken as comedy, but that audiences were relieved to see a black man with power standing up to bigotry. This earned the film the nickname Super-Spade vs. the Rednecks. In the future, Jewison and Poitier would show up to random screenings and could determine how racially diverse the audience was based on the amount of laughter. As expected, the film connected with audiences and became a hit.

In the final unfortunate note, even the Oscars had its own symbolic cry of inequality. The ceremony was scheduled to be held on April 8, 1968. With the assassination of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., the show was postponed two days. Along with In the Heat of the Night, Poitier also starred in fellow Best Picture nominee Guess Who's Coming to Dinner alongside Katharine Hepburn. Both films were politically charged and saw Poitier playing men with power in ways that were deemed controversial for the era. Despite becoming the defining role of Poitier, he wasn't nominated. His co-star Rod Steiger received the only acting nomination - for which he won. 

As one could presume, In the Heat of the Night became Poitier's favorite role of his. Even with the film's success, it wasn't the end for Virgil Tibbs. He would star as his detective character in both They Call Me Mr. Tibbs and The Organization. Both weren't nearly as successful. In 1988, there was a TV series with the eponymous name that featured Carroll O'Conner as Steiger's character and Howard E. Rollins Jr. filling in for Poitier. The show ran for eight seasons and racked up seven Golden Globe nominations. While the story had the same dynamic, the subject matter was expanded to a wider variety of criminal stories including drug use, homophobia, and incest. Even then, everyone remembers Poitier in the 1967 film best for what it symbolized and what it inevitably did to help forward the cinematic conversation of race in America.

If In the Heat of the Night feels at all dated today, it is only because of how progressive the cinematic conversation has moved. There have been many films to tackle equality in America, but few continue to resonate with quite the same impact. This film was the first that saw black protagonists in a better light - both literally and metaphorically. It was a role that defined the strong, confident man who had to live in constant fear of his safety. It was a film that spawned a very unlikely franchise, but it is one that continues to resonate and asks us to treat each other better and not let bigotry keep us down. It is a powerful film that escapes any of its flaws and uses "They call me Mr. Tibbs" not as a throwaway line, but as an indicator of identity and that we should be proud to be who we are, regardless of what others think.

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