For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
I have thoroughly enjoyed the conversation that has developed around my piece on “Forrest Gump.” It seems a few of you found my analysis compelling, and I appreciate all who read or commented on the post.
“Forrest Gump” was the 25th film on the list from 100 to 1, which means that we’re now moving into the second quarter of the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies list. In scanning the list, films #75 to #51 look more complex, more important, and therefore potentially more controversial. I hope that all of the readers are enjoying the trip so far, and for the most part it looks like the films will just continue to get better and better.
Movie #75 starts the second quarter of the list off with a tense bang. “In the Heat of the Night” is a film about racial tensions in a small southern town in the 1960s. Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a police officer from Philadelphia. He is passing thorough Sparta, Mississippi after visiting family, and while waiting for the train to Memphis, he is brought in on suspicion of murder.
Once Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger) accepts that Tibbs is in fact a police officer and not a suspect, he also sees an opportunity for solving the case. The murder victim was an important man, who was going to build a factory that would bring jobs to the community. As a homicide officer, Tibbs could assist a small town department that is out of its depth in regards to the case. But an intelligent black man, who is perceived as in charge of a criminal investigation, is an unwelcome guest in this rural community.
Tibbs is led by a sense of justice and his own conscience to pursue the case. In spite of a police department that is looking for easy answers, Tibbs soldiers on. Here is a moment where a number of officers bring in a suspect, who was discovered with the victim’s wallet. (Sound begins at 10 seconds.)
The argument, which Tibbs makes, is calm compelling and met with ridicule and hostility by the officers and sheriff. This leads us to the one moment that even those who have never seen this film will recognize.
This scene exemplifies why this film is so great. It has both a story and a purpose, and neither one is sacrificed for the other. This is a film about the overt racism that was palpable in the 1960s. It is also a well-constructed murder mystery. By staying true to the mystery, the condemnation of racism comes from the viewer and not a director’s soapbox. By insisting on well developed, racially bigoted and flawed characters, the story becomes uncomfortably real. This is a great example of how a film can make an argument without it unraveling into didactic grandstanding.
The investigation continues and leads to the home of the wealthy Mr. Endicott (Larry Gates). (Sound begins at 5 seconds.)
This moment starts off a chain of events that allow writer Stirling Silliphant, director Norman Jewison, and Poitier to explore Tibbs’ own prejudices. Instead of being a condemnation of his character, the ability to feel prejudice, resentment, and even hatred makes Tibbs real and validates him. When he later is able to see past his own prejudices to get at the truth, it makes his character stronger.
Jewison made a number of films about people stuck in situations where they were largely powerless. “Agnes of God” (1985) and more recently “The Hurricane” (1999) both stand out as examples, but I would claim that neither of those films would have the same impact that “In the Heat of the Night” possessed. It is an incredibly bold film even by today’s standards, and for 1967 it is remarkable.
“In the Heat of the Night” makes me uncomfortable when I watch it. I become anxious whenever I see a just and good character, who is consistently met with arbitrary or unfounded opposition, but that was the racial climate of the times.
I am not of the mindset that we now live in a post-racial society. I feel like that is a term that ignorant members of a dominant culture throw around in an attempt to stop the conversation. Perhaps you disagree, and see “In the Heat of the Night” as an interesting historical document, but one that has little bearing on today’s society. If so, I encourage you to comment, and would love to hear your take. I personally think that this film still has important lessons to teach us, in addition to being a well-told story and a really great movie.
Up Next #74 “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)