In the Heat of the Night (1967)

(On Cable TV, November 2017) Whenever I tackle an older film, I usually curse my lack of knowledge of the era and my imperfect understanding of the context surrounding the film. But in the case of In the Heat of the Night, I’m actually proud and thankful that I don’t have a deep understanding of the pervasive and violent southern racism that the film portrays. Built around a murder mystery in small-town Mississippi, In the Heat of the Night is really an issues drama, as a competent police officer from Philadelphia is semi-voluntarily asked to help with the investigation. The legendary Sidney Poitier stars as “They call me Mister Tibbs,” a gifted cop whose skills are dismissed by the locals due to his skin colour, and who gets into increasingly violent confrontations with those who wish he’d go away. The murder mystery is perfunctory, but it definitely takes a back seat to the social issues illustrated throughout the plot. Thankfully, there is some good character work along the way that helps make the film more than simply a moral lesson—The protagonist has significant flaws (pride, mostly) that are pointed out by other characters, and the lead sheriff’s (Rod Steiger) evolution from stone-cold racism to honest admiration is handled organically. Colourful minor characters help establish the torrid atmosphere of a southern town in the middle of a heat wave. Competent filmmaking, headed by director Norman Jewison (a Canadian, one notes), make much of the film look and feel just as compelling as it was back then. From a contemporary perspective, much of the movie, and the locals’ reaction to the protagonist, defies comprehension and almost approaches caricature—I’m glad to live in a world where that stuff isn’t as acceptable any more. In the Heat of the Night is a Best Picture Oscar winner and it’s easy to see why—even today, it blends genre entertainment with a strong social conscience, through compelling performances and good production savviness.

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