Half a century later, In The Heat Of The Night remains sadly topical

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Half a century later, In The Heat Of The Night remains sadly topical

In The Heat Of The Night (1967)
In The Heat Of The Night (1967)

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

On the day that I’m writing this, there’s a news item about a Northwestern University engineering student, Lawrence Crosby, who was pulled over on suspicion of stealing a car that turned out to be his own vehicle. Within seconds of exiting the car, hands raised, Crosby was tackled to the ground and reportedly beaten, though it’s hard to see just what happens through the scrum of cops. (This incident happened in 2015, but apparently the dashcam video was only just made public, as part of a civil rights lawsuit Crosby filed against the police.) The Evanston Police Department determined that its officers were justified in their use of force, but as I watch the video, it appears that the guy’s only “mistake” was not instantly complying when ordered to get on the ground. It’s not at all clear, though, why he was ordered to get on the ground in the first place, since auto theft isn’t a violent crime per se. I was caught stealing (albeit not a car), many years ago, and the cops who arrested me didn’t yell at me to get on the ground. I am a white dude, however. You will probably not be surprised to learn that Crosby is black.

As excessive use of force goes, this was (thankfully) a relatively minor example—Crosby wasn’t killed, or even badly hurt. It jumped out at me in part because the incident was triggered because someone mistakenly assumed Crosby was stealing his own car—just as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in 2009 for allegedly breaking into his own house. If you’re black, you’re automatically viewed as suspicious by a lot of law enforcement, in the absence of specific information that suggests otherwise. What’s particularly depressing about this phenomenon is that it still happens all the time, despite having been acknowledged as a systemic problem decades ago. Take a look, for example, at Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger’s first encounter in 1967’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, In The Heat Of The Night. This scene takes place after the initial confrontation—just prior to the clip below, Warren Oates’ Officer Wood finds Poitier’s character, Virgil Tibbs, at the train station late at night, and immediately hauls him to the police station—but it still serves as a sharply etched portrait of implicit racial bias, ’60s style. Or today-style.

Steiger won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, and this scene features what might be my single favorite line reading in cinema history, when Steiger’s Chief Gillespie has Officer Wood look at Tibbs’ badge. Somehow, Steiger manages to infuse the words “Yeah! Oh yeah!” with a subtext that I’d translate roughly as “You are a fucking moron and also damn lucky I don’t get up right now and beat you over the head with my chair.” I could watch that on repeat for five straight minutes and just keep laughing. The thing is, though, while Gillespie is justifiably angry at Wood because Wood failed to question Tibbs before running him in, Tibbs didn’t volunteer the information that he’s a police officer, either. The first time I saw In The Heat Of The Night, long ago, I remember considering that a bit of a screenwriter’s cheat—without the mistaken arrest, after all, there’s no movie. Watching it now, though, Tibbs’ initial silence makes a lot more sense. If Philando Castile could be fatally shot in Minnesota in 2016 while reaching for his license and registration, even after carefully informing police that he had a firearm and was properly licensed to carry it, then Virgil Tibbs could easily have been shot in Mississippi in 1967 while reaching for his badge. Or even just shot for having the temerity to claim that he’s a fellow police officer.

Gillespie clearly feels that Tibbs is serving up a heapin’ mess of temerity. Literally the first thing the chief says to this stranger, about whom he as yet knows absolutely nothing, is, “Got a name, boy?” Tibbs doesn’t visibly respond to this insult in any way. He likely anticipated it. Gillespie then accuses Tibbs of having murdered a white man whose body Wood finds on the street at the beginning of the film. Neither Wood nor Gillespie has any reason to suspect Tibbs of having committed this crime: He wasn’t anywhere near the scene, and no evidence implicates him. But he’s obviously guilty, because he’s a stranger, and he’s black. What else would he be doing awake in the middle of the night, if not killing “just about the most important white man we got around here”? Director Norman Jewison, working with the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, has Gillespie drawl his accusation while slumped in his desk chair, with his feet up on the desk; the key shot, gorgeously lit, divides the frame with Tibbs on the left and just Gillespie’s black boots on the right.

Tibbs’ instinct throughout the scene is to defuse the situation by remaining calm and stoic; only later in the film does he start expressing his anger and resentment at the way he’s treated (as in the film’s most famous moment, when he barks, after being asked what people call him back in Philadelphia, “They call me Mister Tibbs!”—a line so memorable that it became the title of the 1970 Tibbs-only sequel). It takes Gillespie asking him his profession point blank, a few minutes into the loose interrogation, for him to finally produce his badge. This surprise both does and doesn’t dramatically alter the situation, in ways that are at once credible and troubling. Steiger does a remarkable job, without dialogue, of suggesting a man who’s reeling, but also working hard not to be seen as reeling. (The small chuckle he finally emits is perfect.) At no point does it seem to occur to him to apologize for the error. And his barely detectable shift toward grudging respect doesn’t last very long. Even when Tibbs is a murder suspect, Gillespie demonstrates contempt for what he perceives as putting on airs; Tibbs’ correct use of the word “whom” registers for Gillespie as a weapon. That impulse only escalates after Gillespie learns that Tibbs is a fellow cop—in part because Tibbs’ passive-aggressive penchant for giving extremely precise answers to pointed rhetorical questions winds up revealing that he makes considerably more money than Gillespie does.

Regular readers of this column know that one of my goofy obsessions is adjusting prices from old movies for inflation, so that I have a better sense of the sums that characters are discussing. (As Dr. Evil learned, a million-dollar ransom meant something significantly different in 1969—two years after In The Heat Of The Night, when the first Austin Powers’ prologue is set—than it did in 1999. And it’s been another 18 years since then.) The close-up of the money in Tibbs’ wallet shows what’s probably $227—you can’t see the denomination of one of the bills, but it’s among the 20s—and that would be roughly $1,658 today. Which is, indeed, a whole lot of cash to be carrying around. It’s also, Gillespie says, more than he makes in a month, which means that his salary would top out at about $20,000 per year… in today’s money. Whereas Tibbs claims to earn $162.39 per week, which is, adjusted for inflation, closer to $60,000 per year. Not bad, but hardly a fortune. Gillespie, however, takes personal offense at the idea that a black man could be taking home three times his pay for the same job. He’s just as openly hostile to Tibbs the well-compensated professional as he was to Tibbs the murder suspect. Arguably, he’s even more hostile. This new Tibbs is more of a threat to him than the old Tibbs was.

There are more wonderful details in this scene than I can unpack: Officer Wood briefly poking his head in, holding a squeeze tool (what are those called? some quick Googling was no help) with which to oil the chief’s air conditioner; the way Gillespie casually leans one arm against his gun rack while questioning Tibbs; Poitier channeling Tibbs’ vast self-control into overenunciated consonants. Also: “YEEAAAAH!! OH YEAH!” But what lingers longest is the sheer certitude with which Gillespie and Wood draw conclusions based on nothing whatsoever, apart from the color of Tibbs’ skin. By sheer coincidence, a cable-TV remake of In The Heat Of The Night was just announced; it’ll be interesting to see how scenes like this one get reimagined for the present day, or if they’ll even need to be reimagined. It would be nice to think that America has come a long way in the past 50 years. I can’t say that I see a whole lot of evidence to that effect.