[1967] In The Heat Of The Night

“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? Continue reading