In the Heat of the Night (’67): A Trail Blazing, Southern Fried, Slow Burner at 54

Wess Haubrich

President Woodrow Wilson uttered those famous words “it is like writing history with lightning” after the first showing of the first film ever in the White House on the evening of March 21, 1915. That nights selection for viewing? D.W. Griffith's (the son of a confederate veteran) “historical” piece on the Civil War – written from the perspective of the Klan and taking the Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.'s virulently racist 1905 polemical play “The Clansman” as its historical source – The Birth of a Nation [watch the film here or below].

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Sidney Poitier and Rod SteigerBBC

The Birth of a Nation is a film that has clearly weighed heavily on the mind of Spike Lee in his evolution as an artist. He even got into it with his professors at NYU's Film School when they would screen the movie but not talk about the social context of the film, and just why it was so damned offensive both now and in 1915 when it came out. The faculty only wanted to talk about the filming techniques that Griffith did indeed pioneer in the movie – including panoramic long shots, iris effects, still shots, night photography, panning shots and more – while essentially leaving out any and all social context – how blacks were treated as apes in the film, and the Klansmen terrorists as “white saviors”, or even the use of blackface by white performers in driving this point of supposed black brutishness home.

Clearly ignoring history is no way to examine any piece of art, let alone one that so defined such an important medium as cinema the way The Birth of a Nation did. Yes Griffith's movie was brilliant from a technical perspective, but it was unthinkably racist and hopelessly revisionist and polemical in its view to the real history of what happened in this country during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Not everyone in the United States in 1915 was happy or even placid about The Birth of a Nation however. Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis (along with other major cities) banned the film entirely following its February 8, 1915 premiere at Clune's Auditorium in L.A. and then beginning a road show across to hit theaters across the country. Meanwhile, in Boston, African-American journalist Moses Trotter led a crusade to get the film banned in their city.

Others took a different tact, however. In 1916, brothers George Perry Johnson and Noble Johnson (a contract actor at Universal) founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company which had middle-class melodramas as their central focus and black soldiers, black families, and black heroes as their main characters – things still foreign to many movie-going audiences, but organized into a cinematic response after The Birth of a Nation. Lincoln Motion Picture released films like The Realization of a Negro's Ambition a year after The Birth of a Nation, Trooper of Troop K in 1917, and The Birth of a Race in 1918.

Oscar Micheaux soon was another filmmaker to follow suit, releasing The Homesteader in 1919. He would go on to make over 40 films, most exploring the spirit of his times: lynching, religion, and criminality. I highly recommend watching his silent film from 1920 titled Within Our Gates, which I have embedded below.

In many ways, the first African-American filmmakers were motivated by Griffith's polemical “epic” in 1915. It – along with the myriad other abuses and horrible treatment they were subjected to in American society – lit a fire in them, kindling a righteous anger to use the power of art to fight the lies, slander, and de-humanization they were seeing both in their daily lives and now on the big screen in this new medium of film.

The other reaction to Griffith’s film is far and away the saddest. The Klan was a crazy organization essentially relegated to little pockets in various very backwoods areas of the American South until 1915. Local Klan groups got the idea to couple advertisements for “the Invisible Empire” with adverts for Griffith’s film, and the result was… depressingly predictable now that we know the power of cinema to move audiences.

The other reaction to Griffith’s film is far and away the saddest. The Klan was a crazy organization essentially relegated to little pockets in various very backwoods areas of the American South until 1915. Local Klan groups got the idea to couple advertisements for “the Invisible Empire” with adverts for Griffith’s film, and the result was… depressingly predictable… now that we know the power of cinema to move audiences.

In BlacKkKlansman, Ron Stallworth the detective is secretly watching a Klan screening of The Birth of a Nation. The crowd gets raucous the rougher blacks on screen are treated. This is not at all far from reality as the Klan still holds screenings of Griffith's film to this day – yes, all three hours of it with Griffith's intended intermission halfway through were consumed.

Lee has a scene in BlacKkKlansman where John David Washington as Ron Stallworth the detective is secretly watching a Klan screening of The Birth of a Nation. The crowd gets raucous the rougher blacks on screen are treated. This is not at all far from reality as the Klan still holds screenings of Griffith’s film to this day – yes, all three hours of it.

Lee’s film is an incredible, visceral tale of “power to all da people” and the incredible legacy of one-man fighting hate, who then became two as his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) joins Stallworth’s undercover op

The two then became even more as they are supported by others in the department – a point that’s driven home when their white cop buddies help them bust a racist, thuggish, power-abusing cop in their department. Indeed, the character study that is BlacKkKlansman is pretty incredible too: essentially, there is no Ron Stallworth (the undercover identity, not the man) without contributions from both Washington’s character and Driver’s character – the two men make what is one bad ass, entertaining, non-mythic modern superhero in their JOINT contributions to the undercover character they develop. The Academy should recognize this and consider both men for a joint Best Actor Oscar in the upcoming Awards for their portrayals in BlacKkKlansman.

Of course, being Spike Lee, there is much about BlacKkKlansman that explicitly ties into racism on both sides of the aisle today. A particularly clever barb was Alec Baldwin’s character – the fictional white supremacist Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard – sloppily (he often forgets his lines) spewing a long stream of racist hate in a darkened room in front of footage of the Civil Rights Movement and a Virginia Battle Flag, when we get a quick blast of, “they’re ‘superpredators’.” Hillary Clinton used this term to describe “kid” gang members, when speaking about her husband’s 1994 crime bill in 1996. This line is directly drawn to the modern day when we get to Donald’s Trump’s obvious racism like the “shithole” Tweet and his abhorrent response to Charlottesville.

Overall, the point of beyond being entertaining as hell – which it absolutely is – is that history is sadly cyclical. If we do not learn from our past we will be condemned to repeat it.

It’s for that reason I propose that we start breaking that pattern right here, right now. President Wilson: your quote “it is like writing history with lightning” is an abomination when applied to a film as hate-filled, anti-American, and utterly avoidant to true history as The Birth of a Nation. We the People, in taking our “power to all da people”, are taking it for a much more noble piece of art – a piece of art that actually deserves the quote because it truly is “like writing history with lightning” in its wit, power, and visceral nature.

To hell with the racists. If I’ve ever seen a film that’s “like writing history with lightning” it’s BlacKkKlansman.

Hollywood, like any of a number of American institutions, is rather slow to react to social change, despite what its elite like to pride themselves on. Indeed, the entertainment industry is quite often at the vanguard of a lot of American institutions in terms of how fast they react to changing social forces (yet, not without the painfully slow qualities that just seem to be endemic throughout institutions in American history) like women’s rights – Mary Pickford, for instance, was the first actress to accept a $1 million contract in 1916 - gay rights, or, as is evidenced by Norman Jewison’s slow burning, southern fried murder mystery In the Heat of the Night (1967), the clamoring for respect of natural rights by everyone – race having no place in the equation.

The movie beautifully tells the story of Philadelphia homicide expert Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) in his getting roped into a homicide investigation of a wealthy businessman bringing jobs to the small Mississippi town that the Detective is sitting in, waiting on a train home to Philadelphia, after seeing his mother in Brownsville, Texas.

(i)

The film itself was not shot on location in Mississippi because of the volatile situation in the political climate of the day: namely, the Civil Rights Movement and the very violent notoriety of the Ku Klux Klan in the state.

The Mississippi Klan had long held the reputation of being one of the most violent factions of the group in the entire United States. In fact, Sidney Poitier refused to set foot in the state after he and fellow actor (and musician) Harry Belafonte were almost killed in Mississippi by the Klan at an earlier date.

Jewison instead opted to film in Sparta, Illinois (southern Illinois), for the further reason that none of the towns street signs needed to be changed for Sparta, Mississippi (where the events play out). Still, the production crew had to film in Tennessee for the scenes at rich man Endicott’s (Larry Gates) cotton plantation.

Poitier slept with a pistol under his pillow for the entire duration of the Tennessee leg of the shoot, which itself had to be cut short because Poitier was threatened by racist thugs when he was there too.

(II)

Detective Virgil Tibbs is treated horribly from the very first scene where he appears, shortly after Deputy Sam Wood (Warren Oates) makes the initial discovery of the murdered rich man Philip Colbert (played in an uncredited role by Jake Teter). The racist deputy really does not know what to think of the well-dressed African American man sitting in his town’s train station, so he frisks him and brings him to the town’s police station on trumped up suspicion regarding the murder.

Tibbs rather quickly dispenses with this initial harassment from the local keystone cops by showing his badge to sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger, who chewed so much gum in this role at Norman Jewison’s insistence that his jaw had to hurt, still this added an incredible further backwoods dimension to his character) and ultimately calling his chief in Philadelphia on the phone to prove it. It is in this phone call, that the chief basically loans Tibbs out to the local cops, despite the abhorrent treatment they still give him.

Tibbs is a ruthlessly analytical character who has a very back and forth relationship with his colleagues, especially Gillespie. He proves throughout the entire duration of the film that he has incredible acumen at what he does, and, I can only imagine, was and is a hero to many that saw this movie because of it, and because he stands up for his dignity in the face of a seemingly endless barrage of racist abuse from his Caucasian counterparts. The most famous quote from the film, Tibbs shouting “they call me Mr. Tibbs!” was in response to being called “boy” repeatedly by Gillespie and his underlings, even after he showed them up using his superior knowledge of homicide investigation.

(III)

Still, this quote is actually not the part that stood out most to 1967 audiences when they first saw In the Heat of the Night. In the course of Philip Colbert’s murder investigation, Tibbs convinces Gillespie to take him to Endicott’s aforementioned cotton plantation after doing a little digging on Philip Colbert’s business entanglements.

After Endicott realizes that Tibbs is questioning him (his false “southern courtesy” really adds a bit of a dense cloud to the character of Endicott), he gets very irate with Tibbs and slaps him. Tibbs’ retaliation slap to Endicott was unlike anything that had previously been seen in a big budget Hollywood picture. Never had an African American character exhibited such assertiveness on film. This historic slap was not in the original script either – Sidney Poitier insisted that Tibbs do this, and further insisted it be included in every print of the film, which, of course, it ultimately was – in all its audience shaking glory.

In the Heat of the Night goes further still in its innovation in how it showed an African-American actor on film. Never before had a big budget color picture been properly lit for an actor with dark skin – cinematographer Haskell Wexler saw that standard lighting for color film had a tendency to produce a lot of glare on those with darker skin complexions. He thus toned down the lighting on Sidney Poitier, for vastly better results. This was most certainly a step forward in social justice in cinema (and justice for the realism of the film), yet it is still sad that it took until 1967 to get it right.

In the many ways mentioned above, In the Heat of the Night is a groundbreaking film. It was also a watershed moment in cinema for a further, arguably greater, reason – its portrayal of a common situation transcending racial discord: Tibbs and Gillespie will become friends by the time this case winds down.

The slow burn of this incredible film also delights and captivates in its dramatic structure, acting, and cinematography. Indeed, In the Heat of the Night was a pivotal, brilliant film 50 years ago. It certainly still will be in another 50 years. Catch its trailer below and full prints of a few other films mentioned here.

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Former editor, now dogged-maverick journalist and researcher covering the crime beat. I examine the weird, absurd, and downright infamous in American crime both here and at Real Monsters podcast. Contact: wess@realmonsters.live

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