Norman Jewison’s 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night” still to this day serves as a huge milestone in the portrayal of race within film. The intelligent and successful African American character of Virgil Tibbs played by Sidney Poitier represents the new way in which society had begun to view those of the African American race, particularly in the Northern states of America. The film takes place in the Southern town of Sparta, this is important as the dominant ideology within many of the Southern communities of the time, was that individuals with darker skin are lesser to those which have white skin. The film challenges this ideology through the relationship between Virgil and Rod Steigers character, the police chief Gillespie. The film however does not only portray African American people in a more positive light because of the character’s relationship with a white man, but also the actions of the character himself.
The film opens with the discovery of the body of a wealthy white businessman within the town of Sparta. When the local police discover an unknown African American man in a smart suit waiting for a train while passing though the town, they immediately arrest him for suspicion of the murder because of his race and the amount of money he is carrying on his person. When he is questioned by the police it comes to light that the African American man, Virgil, is in fact a homicide expert from Philadelphia passing through the town from visiting family. The disbelief and surprise that the police members have to this discovery illustrates just how little they expect of African American people. When Gillespie repeats quite bitterly Virgil’s answer when asked of his pay, “A hundred and sixty-two dollars and thirty-nine cents a week? Well boy!” it is clear that Gillespie is not only realising that this African American man is equal to him but is also superior in terms of his career and financial status. This is a situation that strongly opposes the ideologies of most Southern towns at the time, many people from those communities would have a similar reaction to Gillespie when told of Virgil’s status. Gillespie’s reluctance to allow Virgil to assist him on the case also gives us a great insight into Gillespie’s attitude to seeking help from an African American man. It is later stated by another character to Gillespie “You don’t want him, but you do need him.” This makes it clear to us as an audience that it is Gillespie’s prejudiced nature towards African American people that causes his reluctance to working with Virgil and not that he thinks Virgil is unskilled. This is an important element of Gillespie’s own ideologies as it serves as evidence that racist attitudes are often aimed at the race as a whole while completely ignoring the individual.
Later in the film after Gillespie and Virgil have been working together on the case for some time they go to question a man named Eric Endicott, played by Larry Gates. Endicott is the owner of a cotton plantation where many African American people are employed. Although they are not slaves they are payed a minimum wage. Endicott is a man who is afraid of change, wanting things to revert to the way they were, in particular the ideologies towards African American people. When Virgil explains to Endicott that he is a suspect in the ongoing murder case Endicott slaps Virgil in the face, to which Virgil responds with a harder slap back at Endicott. The slap serves as an extremely powerful signifier, a strong a defiant action signifying the refusal to be treated less then a person of another race. This was a huge moment in the history of African American portrayal in film as it was one of the most significant early cases of a black man striking a white man on screen. This scene was also one the main reason as to why the film was not screened in America’s south. After the slap Endicott states, “There was a time when I could’ve had you shot.” This line illustrates that even a man that looks down on African American people as much Endicott is acknowledging that the ideologies are shifting, although he is not in support of this change. The fact that after the slap Gillespie does not act against Virgil says a lot about their changing relationship, as it is stated that the last Police Chief would have shot Virgil and claimed self-defence. This makes a strong point in support of the changing ideologies towards race.
The Slap Scene
The film’s strong opposition against the ideologies of the southern states is further strengthened through Gillespie’s decision to allow Virgil to stay at his home. Together they share a drink in a dimly lit room and engage in an open and meaningful conversation. When Gillespie, who lives alone and has no family, asks Virgil if he himself is lonely Virgil responds; “No more lonely then you.” This line is an important one within the film as it puts each character on even ground suggesting that regardless of their race, both individuals are capable of feeling the same emotions. At the time some communities, particularly those within the southern states, believed that the differences between the races were so great that mentally they functioned differently, and were incapable of feeling the same way as others of another race. This filmed helped highlight that this is simply not the case, illustrating that at the core of any individual’s being they are human and equal.
During final scene of the film, after the murder has been solved Virgil and Gillespie part ways with a handshake at the train station. This handshake is an important final note of the film, as it is a strong symbol of the respect the two men now have of one another. The handshake of this scene is possibly one of the greatest signs within the film, the signified idea being that these two individuals, despite their differences are equal. Gillespie’s last words to Virgil in the film, “You take care, y’hear?” shows that this handshake is not out of courtesy but because he has grown to like Virgil and respect him as an equal. It can be said that the relationship between Virgil and Gillespie throughout the film is almost symbolic of the relationship between white and black people in the North of America, and later the South. Beyond Gillespie’s attitude towards Virgil, the whole police force’s, and likely the whole town of Sparta’s attitude towards him becomes a lot more positive. This change in their views towards Virgil is more than just a change of heart, it is a shift in the community’s ideology towards African American people. This is what the film hoped to achieve within the real southern communities of the time. Norman Jewison hoped to use his medium to inspire change within the whole community of America. Teaching every person that saw his film that it was possible to treat one another as Virgil and Gillespie did.
Speaking now of elements related to the decision making and production portion of the film Norman Jewison made very particular choices when it came to how he wanted to put together the film. For example the choice to have the popular African American musician Ray Charles do the vocals for the song within the film also named “In the Heat of the Night” helped Norman Jewison support the contention of the film. The choice of design when it came to the original movies cover and promotional art is also a point worth noting. In the design for these pieces we can see characters such as Virgil, Gillespie and Sam. However in the posters these characters are all represented through black silhouettes, this choice means that no race is able to be determined from the picture alone. This poster functions as another signifier supporting the films signified contention of looking past ones race and treating one another equally. This works as a way of erasing the element of race altogether which is important as this may be the first time people have been introduced to the film in any way. People will understand there to no difference between the characters portrayed, exactly what Jewison wished to illustrate within the film. When it came to the filming of the movie itself, the controversy surrounding the films African American lead meant the film could not be filmed in the deep South, where it was intended to be set. This meant that a set needed to created for the film in various towns. The little time they did spend in Southern towns were tense times. During that time they were plagued by “whooping rednecks” (Clark, 2011), Poitier even told Jewison that he slept with a gun under his pillow. The controversy surrounding the film meant it also would not be screened in the South, the producer of the film Walter Mirisch had to do the math to show the United Artists that the picture could make money even if it never opened in a single Southern City.
Norman Jewison’s film “In the Heat of the Night” is a very significant text in the history of the portrayal of race. It was a film that sparked controversy especially around the “slap scene.” It was not screened within the Southern states of America at the time due to the concern of its reception. This in itself is evidence of just how much a film of this nature needed to be produced, and how influential it was on societies ideologies towards the portrayal of race.
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