Monday, January 09, 2006

In the Heat of the Night response

I was very impressed with In the Heat of the Night. For some reason, I thought that this was the movie for which Sidney Poitier had received his Oscar for best-supporting actor, and that had angered me since he was obviously the lead role in the film. I was glad to find out, however, that he had actually received that Oscar for Lilies in the Field, which I have never seen. I realize that this all has been fairly irrelevant thus far, but I just wanted to put it up anyway.

What first struck me about the racism portrayed in In the Heat of the Night was how Tibbs’ dress was observed by some but not by others. It is apparent that one did not see black men dressing in such nice clothes on a regular basis in Mississippi during the 50s/60s. When he arrests Tibbs, Wood only sees a black man. The black man’s professional dress doesn’t matter in the slightest, it doesn’t even register. As soon as Tibbs is put in a jail cell, Harvey asks, “What you doin’ wearin’ white man’s clothes?” Suddenly Tibbs’ appearance matters because he is on a somewhat equal level as Harvey – they are both locked away in jail.

The depiction of the extremely racist white men of the South was also quite powerful. The car that chases Tibbs has the stupid Confederate flag on it… Having grown up and attended high school in West Virginia, I’ve seen plenty of that on some very lovely trucks and cars. Despite the fact that West Virginia actually seceded from the Confederacy during the Civil War, that symbol is ever-present. It makes me want to yell, “The war is over! The North won! Live with it!” The pure hatred that the southern men have for Tibbs simply because of his skin color is tremendously evident, and it truly evokes a heated emotional reaction against them.

The difference between the North and South is crystal clear throughout this film. The Mississippi police have such difficulty believing that Tibbs’ is a homicide expert despite the fact that he is clearly so much more intelligent and educated than they. The color of his skin is just too tough a barrier to see through. Perhaps the biggest example of the difference between North and South is the well-known line “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” No one in Mississippi calls him that; it is always Virgil.

Chief Gillespie is dramatically changed by his experience with Tibbs. Even from the beginning he shows signs for his potential to change. Though it pains him to say it, he admits to Tibbs that he’s “not an expert!” Later when he confronts Tibbs in order to persuade him to stay on the case he says, “You’re smarter than any white man; you’re gonna show us all…” The audience does not yet know whether Gillespie believes this, but it again plants the seed for change. He seems to have a revelation after the ordeal at Endicott’s greenhouse when he says, “You’re just like the rest of us, ain’t ya?” And this is even further reinforced when the audience bears witness to Gillespie pouring out his soul to Tibbs., but it is evident that he has not fully changed when he dramatically rejects the pity offered him by the black police officer. There does seem to be at least a superficial change in his behavior toward Tibbs at the very end of the film, though. As Gillespie sees Tibbs off to the train, the police chief is carrying the black man’s suitcase for him before telling him to take care of himself. Tibbs acts as a sort of pioneer in the still developing acceptance of African Americans in the South.


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