Two seminal American films were released in 1967; each dealt with the issue of racism and each featured one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time. Both were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture; one of them won the award.
The films were In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The big star was Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field, To Sir with Love). In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture at the 1968 Academy Awards ceremony, which had been delayed two days because of the assassination of Martin Luther King less than a week before.
In the Heat of the Night is the story of Virgil Tibbs, a young black police officer from Philadelphia who is arrested for murder as he waits for a train in the fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi. Once his identity, and innocence, are established, his boss asks him to assist the town’s sheriff (Rod Steiger, who won the Oscar for Best Actor) in solving the murder. During the course of the investigation, Tibbs is subjected to all kinds of racist attacks, verbal and physical, not to mention the utter ineptitude and stupidity of the local police force (who arrest at least three people who could not have committed the crime). But Virgil is a proud and stubborn man and one damn smart cop, so he sees the investigation through to the arrest of the real murderer.
Steiger is brilliant as Sheriff Gillespie, a lonely outsider himself, who struggles with the conflict between his racist upbringing and environment and his growing respect, admiration, and even fondness for Virgil Tibbs.
Because the murdered man was the head of a team sent to build a new factory in the town, an enterprise that would employ a significant number of black people at wages equal to those of white workers, the local plantation owner, a dyed-in-the-wool racist, is vehemently opposed to the project. His opposition makes him a suspect in Tibbs’s view, and in an unforgettable scene, when he questions the plantation owner about his possible involvement, the man slaps Virgil in the face; Virgil immediately slaps him back. In a short documentary entitled “The Slap Heard around the World,” one of the special features on the DVD, a number of African-American entertainment celebrities and academics talk about the significance of that scene and its powerful effect on the African-American community in 1967.
In the featurette, Reginald Hudlin, president of entertainment at BET, says of that historic cinematic moment: “…it got down to ‘You will respect me on a fundamental physical level’ and that is unprecedented in cinema history. It is a complete game changer and it’s one of those things where you suddenly…there’s this ocean of pride that hits you and fills you up. And we will be forever in debt to everyone associated with that film for that moment. So thank you to [Director] Norman Jewison, thank you to Sidney Poitier, thank you to everyone who made that moment happen….”
The behind-the-scenes drama of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was nearly equal to what ultimately appeared on screen. One of its stars, Spencer Tracy, was dying of cancer; it was uncertain if he would even be able to finish the movie. His co-star, Katharine Hepburn, had also been his lover for a quarter of a century (Tracy, who was Catholic, never divorced his wife). There was also a power struggle on the set between Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer. And Columbia Pictures decided to cancel the film a few days into production, ostensibly because they could not get insurance on Tracy; Kramer and Hepburn put their salaries up as collateral, effectively calling the studio’s bluff.
Spencer Tracy died, at the age of 67, two weeks after completing the movie.
In the movie, Poitier is Dr. John Prentice, a highly respected specialist in tropical medicine, who happens to fall in love with Joey Drayton, the daughter of liberal San Francisco newspaper publisher Matt (Tracy) and art dealer Christina (Hepburn, who won the Oscar for Best Actress). The couple plan to marry, very soon, so Joey brings the doctor home to meet her parents so that the couple can inform them of their plans and get their blessing, which she breezily assures him will be a matter of mere formality, given the strong liberal views of Matt and Christina Drayton.
Powerful and stubborn opposition to John and Joey’s plans comes from unexpected quarters: the Draytons’ black maid (“I don’t care to see a member of my own race getting’ above hisself!”), Matt Drayton himself, and John’s working-class father. The tension is heightened by the fact that Dr. Prentice is leaving for Geneva on the evening plane and has quietly informed Matt that unless he gives his blessing there will be no wedding. But Drayton is convinced that John and Joey are rushing into marriage without having given sufficient thought to the tremendous difficulties they will face as an interracial couple in the 1960s. Mr. Prentice is even more adamant in his opposition. It takes John’s mother (the wonderful Beah Richards, who also appears briefly in In the Heat of the Night) to convince Matt to change his mind. The movie ends with Matt’s stirring and powerful speech of love and support.
These are iconic films and Sidney Poitier was, in the 1960s, an iconic actor. Handsome, intelligent, articulate, he was perhaps the ideal figure to represent the newly and proudly liberated African-American, a man who could stand his own against a bigoted white plantation owner and match him slap for slap, who could speak with a white newspaper publisher as an equal in intelligence and social and professional status. Poitier was an inspiring replacement for the stereotypical step-‘n-fetchit or I-got-rhythm black man that had been relegated to the back seat of the cinematic bus for decades.
Katharine Houghton, who played Joey in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, spoke with Poitier at length on the set. Poitier told her that “he was extremely aware of the role that he played, that he chose to play above-average people, noble, heroic figures. And he told me that he was being criticized by the black community for doing that, and that it was very, very hard for him because he felt to a certain extent—and I don’t know if this would have been his word—that it was unjustified, that he, in his lifetime and his career, had created a certain niche for a black man in cinema.” Poitier also told Houghton that he planned to curtail his acting career and become a director. While he did continue to act into the 1970s, it is the four big films of the sixties—Lilies of the Field, To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—for which he will be remembered as an actor.
His iconic status notwithstanding, was Sidney Poitier a great actor? In my humble estimation, he was not. Perhaps he would have developed into one had he given himself permission to step out of his self-appointed role and explore the potential of his range. But it was a cultural icon, not an outstanding actor, that slapped the bigoted plantation owner and delivered the classic line to the cracker sheriff (“They call me Mister Tibbs!”). Nevertheless, by making himself the image of the new African-American, equal in every way to a white man, Sidney Poitier earned a place of honour in cinematic history.
Are In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner great movies, as well as iconic ones? Again in my humble opinion, not when compared on overall artistic merit with certain other films of the era—Lawrence of Arabia, Midnight Cowboy, The Lion in Winter, To Kill a Mockingbird. But they are good films, with compelling stories and some outstanding performances. And their iconic status, the important historical position they rightly lay claim to, and the memories they summon of a particular era lend them a cachet that will keep these two films alive, interesting, and relevant to audiences for generations to come.
I wonder if the same might be said for Philadelphia.
In The Heat Of The Night poster @ Wikipedia
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner poster @ Wikipedia
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