This is a good movie, you dig!
Written By: Stirling Silliphant
Directed By: Norman Jewison
Race is a hard subject to tackle in film, I can only imagine it was harder for In The Heat Of The Night since it was made at a time when race wasn’t discussed in film. Nowadays we are used to race in film, it is a hot topic that filmmakers love to take on. But, it is a topic that still gives filmmakers trouble time in and time out. Just take a look at 2004’s Crash, a film where race has to be obvious, where everyone is a racist and in order for the audience to understand racism they must be hit over the head with fake characters and scenarios. The counter to a bludgeoning atrocity like Crash is In The Heat Of The Night. Race is the hot topic, but it’s not necessary for the film to hit you over the head with race. How can a film that is all about race manage to push race to the background so often and so successfully?
The answer is simple, Norman Jewison and Stirling Silliphant understand that race is everywhere all the time, even if it isn’t being pushed into the viewers mind. It really is amazing how well constructed the script and direction are. The movie will take on the role of a murder mystery and you become enveloped in the procedural aspect, then at the drop of a hat it can turn from a benign film to completely racist. Virgil and the Chief have a normal conversation near the end of the film, and for that time you feel a connection truly developing between the two of them, then without a moments notice Gillespie erupts with a racial comment towards Tibbs. Race is always present in In The Heat Of The Night and the film has important things to say about race, but it never shoves race down your throat, it lets you see that racism is but another aspect of life.
In The Heat Of The Night for me was driven by the ability of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger as actors. Both men are required to play certain types, for Steiger it is the worst that humanity can represent while for Poitier it is the best that humanity can represent. But, the performances unveil their true power when both men migrate towards the middle. Tibbs isn’t always perfect and upright, he has to admit at one point that he was pursuing one suspect above all others for personal reasons. Gillespie has moments where he floats towards respectability and kindness, where his racist veneer is shed in favor of a more humane one. Neither actor goes too far towards the middle, but that middle ground is always there. That allows the audience to identify them not as characters in a race play, but as people, and people are capable of evil, virtue and everything in between. In the final analysis, In The Heat Of The Night isn’t so much about race as it is about people in general and one relationship in particular.
While it is true that In The Heat Of The Night is a powerful movie, it did falter a bit in regards to the procedural aspect. Tibbs being a homicide detective and also somehow having the skills of a forensic pathologist was too hard to swallow. Most of all, the murder mystery is a good set piece, but held under a brighter light it isn’t all that deep.
As far as racially driven movies go I don’t know if In The Heat Of The Night is the best, but I do place it among the best. It is an exercise in how to handle racism in film, and a movie that modern filmmakers trying to tackle the same subject need to revisit. Steiger and Poitier are great, while the script and direction combine with a moody score for a film drenching with atmosphere and layering. If you need to see a movie that tackles the subject of race, then avoid tripe like Crash at all costs, go with In The Heat Of The Night instead.