When I wrote about 12 Years a Salve, I pretty much dismissed it as too heavy handed, too on the nose and too predictable and easy. While I understand it was tackling a serious issue, I thought it chose the most obvious ways to bash me over the head with it again and again and again. None of the rave reviews I’ve read for that movie have convinced me I’m wrong. And until now, I couldn’t think of a way to articulate how I thought 12 Years Slave could have better told its story. Well, now I don’t need to articulate anything. All I have to do is point people towards In the Heat of the Night.
The American south of the late 60s wasn’t exactly known for its racial tolerance. So when a local industrialist in a small Mississippi town is found bludgeoned to death in the street, it’s no surprise that Gillespie (Rod Stieger) the local Police Chief, is quick to arrest a lone black man waiting in the local train station in the middle of the night to catch the next train out of town. Suffering from John McClane’s disease, the black dude is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s also Sidney Poitier, playing Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective, waiting for a train home after visiting his mother.
When the misunderstanding is out of the way, Tibbs is ordered to stay and help solve the murder. No one, including Tibbs, is thrilled about a black detective taking over this case in this obviously segregated town, and no one is shy in letting that be known. To me, seeing people openly call Poitier’s character “boy” in the late 60s was much more confronting than the constant n-bombs dropped in 12 Years Slave.
The main antagonist is Steiger’s Police Chief. He’s obviously bigoted and resentful towards Tibbs for not only his colour, but also his suit, tie and big city demeanour. But what separates him from the one dimensional villains of 12 Years Slave are the few moments when the movie lets him outsmart Tibbs, or recognise his own short comings, but plough on anyway. In the Heat of the Night also gives its black protagonist a few flaws that make him so much more interesting than the infallible Solomon Northup of 12 Years Slave.
The murder case winds up being a bit of a McGuffin. By the time it’s solved, In the Heat of the Night has become about so much more than that. And while the friendship and respect that grows between the characters of Poitier and Stieger is a little too Hollywood crowd pleasing by the end, the road they take to get there is more than effective enough.
There are a couple of weird choices made with the look and feel of this movie. The opening titles use an almost comical and cartoony font that in no way suits the movie that’s about to follow. And more than once, what should be a suspenseful, intense scene of life and death drama, loses all edge when scored by the kind of music that sounds like it should be a in a Dukes of Hazard chase scene.
I didn’t intend for a review of In the Heat of the Night to double as a reason bang on about everything I disliked in 12 Years Slave, but watching them in pretty close proximity meant I spent much of the time watching the older movie thinking about how much more effective it was at delivering its message than this year’s Oscar bait was.