“They call me MISTER Tibbs,” exclaimed the defiantly proud man of the same name. Yet his powerful and oft cited utterance, Sidney Poitier commits to his role as a detective first and a black man second. In The Heat Of The Night wants its audience to know that and this strict adherence to logic and archetype afford it the grace to convey a simple, strong and solid message about the state of affairs in the tepid South. It, of course, succeeded, but its lasting impression is still this iconic line. What’s the film even about?
Therein lies an interesting discussion. Will canon remember 1967’s Best Picture winner for its story? Its contributions to peeling back the racial onion? Or, in 53 years, when it turns 100, will people only remember Poitier’s crystallized, most likely off-hand remark, and forget that his screen partner, Rod Steiger, actually took the Oscar for Best Actor? As a hopeful metaphor for racial acceptance and gradual change in the post-Jim Crow Stouth, Steiger’s Gillespie can be a particular metaphor for acceptance at one’s own pace – if not acceptance, then at least some kind of mutual respect. This kind of reformation might be included in our own epoch’s education against intolerance.
Curiously, a high correlation exists among AFI’s “100 Years…100 Quotes” index and Oscar nomination, In The Heat Of The Night included. In fact, all but two out of the top 20 were nominated for Best Picture; these two outliers, “Go ahead, make my day,” from 1983’s Sudden Impact and “Made it, Ma! Top of the world,” from 1949’s White Heat are respected enough to earn a watch. But being that 18 of 20 are Best Picture nominees and winners, one can reasonably assume an iconic quote might give way for a nomination or a win. Do writers know this and purposefully try to include a line to punctuate a harangue, or one in context that has particular cultural resonance? This kind of effort begs failure.
Several explanations would attempt to explain the global significance of certain lines in film over decades – “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” “May the force be with you,” “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” – but in the context of In The Heat Of The Night, what makes “They call me MISTER Tibbs,” so significant? A combination of who said it, when it was said, why he said it, etc., contributes to its significance; the milieu gives the text contextual significance, but a more compelling explanation examines the gestalt significance of this film’s release. Imagine if, instead of in a post-Jim Crow universe, this film takes place in a post-gay marriage world, let’s say 2020, and instead of Poitier, Neil Patrick Harris, utters the words, “They call me MISTER Tibbs.” Impossible to tell outside an alternate universe where NPH’s version is the only version released, this inquiry falls victim to inherent comparison. In this alternate world, though, social activism has become norm and global, rather than fringe and provincial. Do we care about this line in a modern context?
Just like it’s impossible to remove this film from it’s context, it’s also impossible to remove this line from this film, or any iconic line from its place in film lore. This is mostly a boring conversation to have, but it could leave some interesting secondary questions: if not for the line, is the film instantly recognizable? Where in the film does the line play and does it bring with it a HUGE tone shift? In the case of In The Heat Of The Night, for instance, the line is in the first third of the film, the expository phase, where we’re getting to learn our characters’ motivations and nuances. The line does affect the tone: it sets up Virgil Tibbs as a man and a detective first; in no way do we need to see him as a black detective or a black man. It’s important that the audience identify with Tibbs this way; it allows for the foil to play out.
Other films, like Gone With The Wind and Star Wars, punctuate a journey with enthusiasm. The lines serve as summary points, as gift-wrapped thematic exclamation points. When we think of them, we can vividly picture the rest of the movie up until the line – so many re-watches and recommendations base themselves around the lines that I’m surprised that people even watch the movie anymore. It’s a drag on culture and it’s a balance of time and patience to sit through films that just don’t pack the punch we want them to.
Given the chance to rewrite the 40th annual Academy Awards, history will have to remember to award The Graduate top honors in 1967. Looking back 45 years, this film has inspired more 15-year-old boys to lust after their friends’ moms than In The Heat Of The Night has. But to afford an Oscar to a film other than one punching racial tension in the kidney would have been a mistake on the zeitgeist level. As was the case in 1994, 1967’s other nominated films (Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner) maybe have had a better case for the Best Picture award, but we don’t call Dustin Hoffman “MISTER Braddock.”