Monday, January 09, 2006

In the Heat of the Night: Breaking Racial Barriers

In the Heat of the Night really set the ball rolling for black actors, especially for cop films. Even though the civil rights movement had happened just four years before the filming of In the Heat of the Night, the producers were able to reproduce the racial tension of the deep south that still ensued despite the movement. Sidney Portier's character Virgil Tibbs played a powerful role representing a black person who is able to overcome the racial barriers as a superior police officer, while trying to assert himself as an equal rather then just another "nigger" in the eyes of the white folks of Sparta, MS. Still, Virgil Tibbs is still eons from becoming an Roger Murtaugh or Alex Foley.
Unlike Roger Murtaugh and Axel Foley, Virgil Tibbs' character still plays the social role of blacks of the time. Virgil Tibbs is very reserved, bent on gaining character strength by proving white people wrong, but in the end the viewer does not feel the same satisfaction that you would get from watching a movie like Lethal Weapon. Even though Virgil TIbbs solves the mystery, he never is glorified as the hero that black cops in movies today are viewed as. This is because Virgil Tibbs has to subject himself to so much racism, yet the only satisfaction that he receives from all of it is a white trash waiter giving a confession. We didn't even get the satisifaction of watching Endicott getting arrested, which would have been Virgil Tibbs' glory. Its as if Virgil Tibbs voluntarily subjects himself to the racism yet still gets nothing out of it other then proving a few white people wrong.
From the very begginning, Virgil Tibbs character is weakend by the fact that he never represents himself as the supercop that he is. For example, when Sam firsts meets Virgil in the train station waiting room Sam immediately accuses Virgil just because he is black. He lets Sam lable him as another "nigger" especially when he accuses Virgil of stealing all the money in his wallet. This could have been avoided if he explained to Sam that he was a cop.
Another example was when theif who is wrongly accused of murder is first aprehended and brought to the police office. After a brief examination of the suspect, Virgil explains to the other police officers that the suspect was left handed. Once the cheif comes out, the other officers take Virgil's findings and tell it to the chief as it was there own, while Virgil was standing amongst the same white officers whom he just told moments before.


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