"In the Heat of the Night", 1967
Director: Norman Jewison
Music: Quincy Jones
Cast: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Beah Richards
"Virgil is a pretty fancy name for a black boy like you."
Plot: Wealthy industrialist Philip Colbert is found murdered in Mississippi. White and racist police chief Bill Gillespie finds a perfect culprit when officer Sam Woods discovers black northener Virgil Tibbs at the station waiting for the train. Virgil Tibbs, however, is a recognised homicide detective. Tibbs experiences racist treatment and wants to leave town but stays, works with Gillespie and finds the person responsible for the murder he was initially accused of having committed.
The film became "an overnight hit" and won the Academy Awards for "Best Picture", "Best Actor in a Leading Role" (Rod Steiger), "Best Writing", "Best Sound", "Best Film Editing" and was nomiated for "Best Director" and "Best Effects, Sound Effects", several Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards, Grammy Awards, and many more (via). The 1968 Academy Awards were scheduled for 8 April and postponed out of respect for Martin Luther King who had been assassinated on 4 April 1968. Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger and other actors and actresses had notified the Academy that they would not attend the show if the Board did not postpone it until after King's funeral. The show was postponed - a then-umprecedented step (via).
Mayor Webb Schubert: Bill... what's made you change your mind about Tibbs?
Gillespie: Who says I have?
Mayor Webb Schubert: [referring to Tibbs slapping Endicott] Last Chief we had... he'd have shot Tibbs one second after he slapped Endicott, claim self-defense. (via)
"I'm sure you can find a movie before 1967 where a black man hit a white man back. But in a way, this was the slap heard around the world."
Norman Jewison's film about racism was produced "in the heyday of the civil rights era" and it was, as Jewison said "not a period film. It was taking place in the present time". In that present time, the film showed a slap scene (watch) between the cotton plantation owner Endicott and Tibbs. Tibbs' reaction, a fiercer, harder slap, shocked the audience (via). Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier went to the Capitol Theatre in New York a couple of times to see how many black and white Americans there were and to amuse themselves hearing black Americans cheer during the famous slapping scene that gave the film the nickname "Super-spade Versus the Rednecks", and white Americans react with a whispered and astonished "Oh!" (via). During production, Poitier refused to shoot the scene in the South. Jewison persuaded him to go to Dyersburg in Tennessee. As feelings were extremely high, Sidney Poitier kept a gun under his pillow at the Holiday Inn, just to be on the safe side (via).
"When we rehearsed the slap, we always stopped and said, ‘bang, bang, bang’ or ‘slap, slap.’ Because it hurts to get slapped that hard. I took Larry Gates aside, the chap who played Endicott, and had to teach him since he wasn’t a trained film actor, he was a theatrical actor. I said, ‘Try not to hit the ear. Hit him on the fatty part of the cheek, underneath the ear. Then you can take a pretty hard slap. Go ahead, slap me.’ He says, ‘I can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Go ahead.’ So he slapped me. I said, ‘That’s not a slap. Slap me harder!’ When he got to the point when he was stunning me a little, I said, ‘You got it!’
I could see Larry was afraid of slapping Sidney. But Sidney I didn’t have to direct. He was a film actor. I said, ‘I want you to hit him hard enough so that he feels it. In other words, you can’t hold back.’ I remember working on this technically, trying to get both actors to the point where they’re not afraid of hurting each other. That was the main thing. I think we did it in two takes, and I think we used the first. Because there’s something about being caught off guard that was essential to the moment. Nobody expected him to slap Sidney.
I think you have to show Virgil’s shoulder here, to feel the closeness of their bodies, to feel his presence. He had to look like he was hurt. And Endicott’s hurt more because he couldn’t control his own passion. He’s a typical racist Southerner who always looked on blacks as people you had to take care of, like his orchids. So when he does this, he realizes what he’s become. Those tears aren’t just tears of pain. He’s embarrassed. This was coverage I was doing, so we knew that we probably wanted this shot. But it’s in the editing room that you decide these things, and I had one of the most talented editors in America on the film, Hal Ashby [who later became a director].
This is an important reaction, because without it, you don’t really have a scene. Endicott says, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ Gillespie didn’t even pull his gun. He was so in shock, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ Rod had said to me, ‘How do I play this scene?’ I said, ‘I want complete honesty. You’re a white cop, he expects you to respond, but it comes as a shock to you. Don’t complicate it.’ Rod was always worried about what he was going to say. But I think it came out right. His glasses were an orangey shade. I gave Rod five or six colors to work from, but that was the color Haskell and I felt looked the most menacing.
This is where they have the argument in which Virgil says, ‘I can pull that fat cat down, I can bring him right off this hill.’ So this confirms to Gillespie that Virgil is quite capable of reverse discrimination, that now he’s racially motivated. He thinks Virgil is trying to pin the murder rap on Endicott because of what Endicott represents politically. That’s why he says, ‘You’re just like the rest of us, ain’t ya?’ He’s now allowed to let it out. This was easier to shoot outside the car. It puts the car between them, so it separates them, like the separation of the races.
(...) Race relations were on the TV screens of America, and race relations were stretched to a breaking point. And this was a film about race relations."
Tibbs: Now listen, hear me good mama. Please. Don't make me have to send you to jail... There's white time in jail and there's colored time in jail. The worst kind of time you can do is colored time. (via)
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"I've never met a racist yet who thought he was a racist."
Thanks a lot, Derek! That's a new category I'm starting: films.Delete
Things have changed since then... but a lot of rats still give a s**t.ReplyDelete
Oh yes, there are still a great many things that need to change ... or to develop. Thank you, Karen!Delete
Racism is a function of internal colonialism. This film is a masterpiece.ReplyDelete
That's a very interesting perspective; many thanks for sharing it, Kenneth. This film is a masterpiece, indeed.Delete