"Gradualism may have some value in politics. But in art, it just represent a stale, hackneyed period, to be forgotten as soon as we can get on to the real work at hand." - Clifford Mason
It's hard to watch Sidney Poitier's "classic" movies these days. In the 50s and 60s he became Hollywood's token black man. The new, upstanding, righteous, handsome, dignified, strangely sex-less, African American, symbolic of progressivism, Civil Rights movements and back-patting, liberal film-makers. Poitier wasn't just an actor, he was a flag bearer, smuggling all that was good and just about "The Negro" into Hollywood. White audiences loved him. Blacks thought he was a joke. Ironically, Poitier got into acting because he was ashamed of his Afro-Caribbean roots, and worked frantically to disguise his West Indian accent. He wanted to be a proper speaking white man. Others used him because they believed that the "Negro image" is best served or rehabilitated by a black version of a white man in grey flannel suits, who takes on white problems and inherits a white man's sense of what's wrong in the world.
Most of Poitier's films during this period followed a pattern. Director Stanley Kramer, not one to shy away from middle-brow message movies, had him tied to a white guy in "The Deviant Ones", audience and co-star Tony Curtis learning that "useful black men are our friends too". Meanwhile, "The Bedford Incident" saw Poitier turn his nose up to war mongering white boys whilst snidely calling them "sir". Later, "Duel at Diablo" proved that the black man can also be an Indian killing cowboy, whilst dressed in slick, suave, grey suits of course, and the inspirational "To Sir With Love" saw Poitier playing a sex-less London school teacher whose students learn that "hey, black people are great and make good teachers in white schools". And don't forget "A Patch of Blue", in which Poitier plays a reporter who falls in love with a blind white girl. Typical of Poitier-film reversals, he's well off, suited and suave looking, while she's a dirty white girl from the slums. Their romance is sterile - white audiences weren't ready for interracial smooching - Poitier rescuing the girl and then politely sending her off to a camp for the blind, never to see her again. Then there's "Guess Who's Coming To Diner?", in which Poitier finally gets to kiss a white girl (it's more of a peck), after which he proves he's a better white man than her family of arrogant Caucasians.
These films are all entertaining in a sleazy, salacious sort of way, but the fact is that they trade entirely in countercliches and do not, as they proudly claim, change the stereotypes that black actors are subjected to. They are contrivances, art-less, in which Poitier is reduced to a showcase Negro who exists only in the white man's view of him. Always in clean suits, pure of motivation, dignified, surrounded by stupid, mean whites, the Poitier Hero, antiseptic and one-dimensional, always finds himself in a totally white world, with no wife, no sweetheart, no woman, no black friends, and tasked with using his innate goodness to solve white problems for whites. Such "Black Saviour" tales are resurfacing today. Think "Blind Side", "Precious", "The Legend of Bagger Vance", anything with Morgan Freeman and Obama mania.
And so "In The Heat of the Night" stars Sidney Poitier as a grey suited, angelic white man in black-face who finds himself trapped in the Deep South. Surrounded by racist, stupid, redneck cops, Poitier spends the first half of the film schooling white boys and proving that blacks are superior to whites at police work, medical examinations, manners, looks and speech. He's an African American Ubermensch.
The film was directed by Norman Jewison, though, a director who makes comedies when he's not bludgeoning us with message movies. So "Night" has a sense of humour which your typical Poitier movie doesn't, Poitier's superiority played for laughs, and red-neck inferiority treated as a joke (see "Watermellon Man"). Other good moments include passing shots of workers in fields (alluding, briefly, to the South's reliance on the slave trade) and Poitier's stand-off with a wealthy local. Indeed, though the film is oft touted as being "progressive" for highlighting "white on black" racism, the only thing it deals believably with is "black on white" racism, Poitier learning to check his aggression, stop instinctively blaming wealthy whites, and to work with lug headed whites for a better tomorrow. In contrast, "white on black" racism is treated ridiculously. The film pretends to be progressive but amounts to odious titillation, playing like a lynch mob lynching whites while blacks are schooled on the dangers of stereotyping rich folk with less melanin. It's the kind of film where audiences snicker because a black man slaps the face of a rich, pampered, arrogant, locally powerful white man...but not before he slapped our hero, of course.
Aesthetically the film is effective, Jewison capturing the heat, gentle winds and lazy atmosphere of the Deep South, and occasionally treating us to some moody night-time photography. The film's acting garnered awards but is mostly caricatural; a collection of tics. Rod Steiger's a mean curmudgeon, and Poitier does his Henry Fonda/Jimmy Stewart in black-face routine. Quincey Jones, Hollywood's go-to black-composer, did the score.
7.9/10 – Peep-show sensationalism, diluted by some moments of humour. Worth one viewing.