Sunday, January 16, 2011

They call me Mr. Cineast!

Martin Luther King Day is tomorrow, and TCM is kicking off the look at race relations a bit early with a couple of Sidney Poitier movies this evening. The second of them is In the Heat of the Night at 8:00 PM ET.

Poitier finally gets top billing as Virgil Tibbs, the black detective from Philadelphia who stops briefly in the town of Sparta, MS, in order to change trains. Unfortunately, during his brief time at the train station, somebody is murdered in town, and when police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) finds out, he naturally calls for strangers with no alibi to be brought in for questioning. Det. Tibbs perfectly fits the bill, even though he's completely innocent. Eventually, Chief Gillespie discovers that Tibbs is in fact a detective, and after a phone call to Philadelphia, Tibbs is exonerated but given a new job: help Gillespie solve the murder, since the police departments in the small town don't have anywhere near the resources or police knolwedge to solve such a crime.

Tibbs reluctantly agrees, and frankly Gillespie isn't so enamored of the arrangement, either. After all, Tibbs, if you didn't notice, is black, and the white political structure of Sparta isn't going to be that thrilled with having a black man on the case. Especially not one from the North. As such, it's particularly dangerous for Tibbs to be investigating, something that's made clear to him over and over.

Rod Steiger won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Chief Gillespie, and to be fair, I think he was more deserving then Poitier. Both of them give excellent portrayals, but Steiger's is a more complex and thus more difficult character to play. Although Poitier is playing on two levels here, having to do his duty but also not liking the obvious racism, it's fairly clear from the beginning of the movie that the story is taking the side of anti-racism. This basically puts Poitier in the situation of being once again the upright black man. Steiger, on the other hand, has to pursue justice, while dealing with his own racist feelings towards a detective who is probably more competent than him (even if only because the big cities have more experience with investigating crime than does a small town like Sparta that probably hadn't seen a murder in years). Further, at the end of the movie, Poitier's Tibbs gets to leave and go back to Philadelphia. Steiger's Gillespie, on the other hand, has to live with the consequences of having let the cat out amongst the pigeons.

In the Heat of the Night, despite some dated views of race relations, is still a great movie, and one that's available on DVD, so you don't have to wait for the next TCM showing.

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