One of the really great things about going through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is discovering so many great movies you’ve not seen yet and with every single one that you do and come to love, realizing that there are still so many great films out there waiting for you! Isn’t that an exciting thought? It’s actually not discouraging, but quite the opposite. The fact that you have so many great films yet to discover and go through that wonderful feeling of seeing something truly wonderful again and again. I think that’s the most exciting thing about films – not the number of films you’ve seen, but the number you have not seen. And every great movie leads to another great one. Or so it seems..
Yes, I broke the spell and for a change been very lucky with the films I’ve seen in the past two weeks. Inspired by I Am Not Your Negro, I decided to delve deeper into the race politics and picked In The Heat of the Night to start with, which has sparked a completely new wave of excitement for my mission (or challenge).
This year marks the 50th anniversary of In the Heat of the Night’s release and I couldn’t help but think how relevant the film is even today… which is… kinda sad. It’s been 50 years and the world doesn’t seem to have done much progress. We are still discussing racial issues. Fifty freaking years later. We are still discussing equality. Can you believe it?
The way the Southerners look at Virgil (Sidney Poitier), the black detective from Philadelphia, who’s been mistakenly detained at a train station where he’s been nothing but waiting for his train, is horrendous. But so damn realistic. Without any word of explanation, Virgil is taken to the police station where he’s charged with murder without any proof to confirm this charge other than the fact that he’s black and he’s been at the train station in the middle of the night with a wallet full of money. There surely can’t be any other explanation than this, can it? Where would a black man get so much money other than stealing them from the man he killed.
I think I wouldn’t have appreciated this film as much as I did if I’ve not seen I Am Not Your Negro beforehand. It just all makes much more sense and puts it into far better context. Especially as an European, it gives me the social, political and cultural context I would not have otherwise. So, if you’ve not seen In the Heat of the Night yet (or even if you did but want to watch it again), try to watch this powerful documentary first. I can guarantee you will never look the same way at any of the films about racial issues. I certainly won’t.
But even if you skip it – In the Heat of the Night is very powerful film, despite being 50 years old. It’s actually almost unbelievable how good it is. It’s one of the films that lost none of its magic over the time.
You know how sometimes you kind of need to make yourself concentrate on the old films and you’re a tiny bit bored while watching them? Even though you know they’re classics, and you can see all the reasons why and part of you enjoys them but.. there’s just something missing… You just know it’s an old film and you watch it with that on mind. Well, this is not the case – and I love it when this happens. This is the true reason for me for any film to be on the list – it’s as interesting and gripping as it was back in the sixties and is actually so ahead of its time.
Sidney Poitier in the lead is great and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for his character – even more so, when I read an article from Hollywood Reporter where the director Norman Jewison recalls that Sidney’s condition to make the film was that they won’t be shooting south the Mason-Dixon line because he had an unsettling experience there in Georgia, where his and Henry Belafonte‘s car was chased and they were threatened. The director agreed and tried his best to keep his promise. However as he wasn’t able to find any cotton plantation north the Mason-Dixon line, he had a favor to ask of Sidney – luckily, Sidney agreed, being promised they will protect him. He stayed in the Holiday Inn, the only hotel that would accept Afro-Americans.
How unsettling it is to just be reading that! It gives me chills. This behind the scenes story makes the film all the more real.
I can’t help but still be fascinated (and not in a good way) by the hate and the limited minds of the people who looked at the Afro-Americans this way. I just can’t wrap my head around it.. But I’m not gonna get into this again, I’ve talked enough about my point of view in my recent blog about I Am Not Your Negro, so head over there if you’re interested. I shall rather focus on the fun parts.
My favorite moment of the film was when Gillepsie (Rod Steiger) the local head of police, clearly a racist like all the Southerners, asks Virgil: “What do they call you up there in Philadelphia, Virgil?” And he says, “They call me Mr. Tibbs.”
Another one would be when Virgil is asked how much money he makes as a detective in Philadelphia and when he says how much, Gillepsie just can’t believe it.
Rod Steiger’s performance as Gillepsie is actually one of the best parts of the film. He brought his character to life and made him so real that you can’t help but enjoy watching him even when he’s being the racist fathead he is. Very well deserved Oscar here.
In the Heat of the Night is probably the best film I’ve watched throughout my 1001 Movies Challenge so far. And not just for confronting the racial issues in the South in a very realistic and open way, pretty groundbreaking for its times, but also by showing the state of the law practice down the South. I don’t know what’s more alarming, because both of the issues are still very much current – and not just in South America, but in the whole world. Seriously, this is just one of those films that makes you realize, that we as a human race, have not done much progress in those fifty years. Isn’t that sad?!
However, the film ends with hope – as Gillepsie realizes Virgil is no different from him (or the white people) and starts to gain his respect by his expertise during the crime investigation, he starts to change his attitude towards him and when they part their ways he even seems genuinely concerned for him – as a friend. Now, if there is hope for men like Gillepsie, isn’t there hope for everyone? I certainly hope so. It’s just taking bloody too long..