Investigating Class in Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night

and Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Maxwell had discovered long ago that he doubled the odds of finishing first if he didn't carry the weight of that milligram of pigment in his skin. There was no feasible reason why it should have slowed him down since in mass it weighed so little, and even that was consistently distributed over his six-foot frame. But the handicap had been set centuries before it was his turn at the gate. And since he knew no tract of ground but the planet earth and no competition but the human race, he had to use the rules as written and find a way to turn a consequence into an inconsequence in his struggle to reach the finish line as a man.
(Linden Hills 102)

In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner star Sidney Poitier as leading actor and put him where he obviously does not belong.
It is the year 1967: Jewison's film is set in a remote town way down South, in a place called Sparta, Mississippi. The location of Kramer's film is the posh home of a wealthy white newspaper magnate in San Francisco. The plots of both films seem highly constructed: In Jewison's case it is the genre which requires construction, for In the Heat can be described as a whodunit detective story thriller. All the classic ingredients are there: an unconventional detective, who outsmarts the local police; an analytic story line; numerous suspects with a motive but no alibi…

In Kramer's case it is the lack of drama that calls for construction. The film is a romance and the superficiality lies in the motivation of characters. One does not understand why Dr John Wade Prentice/Sidney Poitier considers it necessary to take an utterly submissive stance when he is obviously the best match his white fiancée could ever have dreamed of making. The shock of the parents also fails to convince the viewer.

 

In the Heat of the Night

 

Virgil Tibbs/Sidney Poitier is the designated hero of this film. We first see him get off a train in the Deep South, he wears a suit and carries a rather expensive looking suitcase. He has to change trains in Sparta and is soon charged with the very murder he will eventually solve. As soon as he enters the police station in Sparta, it becomes obvious that this man stands out: he looks better than everybody else, he is dressed smarter than everybody else, he is better educated than everybody else, and - most important - he makes more money than everybody else. Throughout the movie Virgil Tibbs is provided with numerous opportunities to demonstrate his superiority. In the course of the movie the audience learn that the murder victim is an important businessman, who has planned to open a factory in Sparta, which would have brought considerable economic advantages to the colored people of the region. We also get to know the local plantation owner, who seems to make a fortune off cotton and cheap black labour, and who firmly opposes the idea of an alternative means of income for Sparta's "negroes". The murderer, however, turns out to be the town nerd, who runs the local diner and whose underage girlfriend is expecting a baby. He needs money for the abortion and kills the businessman who has offered to give him a ride. Although Virgil would have preferred Mr. Endicott, the plantation owner, to be the murderer, he does not allow himself to be distracted by "personal reasons" and solves the case single-handedly.

The fact that the leading character of In the Heat is black is intended to take this classic whodunit detective story thriller to a different level. It becomes a political statement, especially if one considers the historical background. The movie was perceived as very liberal minded at the time of its release. The audience were confronted with the odd couple collaboration of a bigoted but shrewd Southern sheriff and a lone, intelligent black homicide expert from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. According to Tim Dirks, the film was so controversial at the time that it could not be filmed in the Deep South. The sets had to be recreated in Illinois and Tennessee. The movie, however, was nominated for seven Academy Awards and received five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor (Rod Steiger), Best Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant), Best Sound, and best Film Editing.

 

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

In the year of the Hot Summer Stanley Kramer must have felt that it was time for some reconciliation. He picked a mixed couple, Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier, added the screwball comedians, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and decided to do a love story in Shakespearean fashion - with the slight difference that his lovers don't end up dead but much rather "fly" into the sunset together.

The plot is very simple: a 23-year-old Caucasian woman, whose profession is never disclosed to the audience, falls in love with a 37-year-old physician, who happens to be African American but luckily enough has an international reputation. "He is an important man", as various characters in the film keep pointing out. Dr John Wade Prentice is not only engaged in humanitarian work in Africa but also lectures at numerous Ivy League universities in the States. The main assets of the young woman seem to be the fact that she is white and that her father runs one of San Francisco's most prestigious liberal newspapers; he is also an important man but naturally he is not quite as important as the doctor.
After having known each other for only ten days, the young people decide to get married in Geneva, where the doctor's job is taking them. On their way to Europe via San Francisco they spend one day at the girl's home, where they try to convince her and eventually also his parents to "hurray" their decision. This turns out to be a rather hard piece of work but in the end even the shrewd fathers are willing to believe that love will conquer all.

Stanley Kramer definitely picked a complex topic. The fact, however, that he managed to simplify matters considerably by opting for utterly flat characters even earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.


Historical Background

In college he found that his blackness began to disappear behind his straight A average, and his reputation for never sweating or getting cold. He trained himself to survive on three hours of sleep while never appearing tired during classes, heading the student government, editing the school newspaper and the yearbook. Always immaculate and controlled, he kept them all wondering how it was done, so there was little time to think about who was doing it.
(Linden Hills 103)

The American 1960s were an era determined by violence and tension as well as emancipation. The Civil Rights Movement gradually grew more militant and nationalist, thus paving the way for numerous African Americans to cross the color line. The ones who "made it", however, didn't have much in common with Malcolm X's grass roots and were far from the Panther's Maoist vision. Their way of crossing the line was outstanding an achievement. And while the masses were getting ready to riot in the ghettos, some ambitious individuals worked their way into political offices and leading positions.

1963
-Sidney Poitier wins the Academy Award for Best Actor in Lilies of the Field
-John F. Kennedy calls the goals of the Civil Rights Movement a moral issue for the whole nation
-Martin Luther King leads the March on Washington and voices his dream
1963
-Bull Connor, chief of police in Birmingham, Alabama, and Governor Wallace become symbols of racism
-Medgar Evers is assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi
-Martin Luther King writes his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"
-4 black girls are killed when a bomb explodes in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham
-John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas
-The National Guard has to protect black students in the south

1964
-Time magazine honors M.L. King man of the year
-Congress passes the Civil Rights Act
-M.L.King receives the Nobel Prize

1964
-Three civil rights activists are killed while travelling through Philadelphia, Mississippi

1965

-President Johnson passes the Voting Rights Act

1965
-Malcolm X is assassinated while speaking in the Audubon ballroom in Harlem
-March 7th, 1965 is known as Bloody Sunday
-August 11th brings one of the bloodiest race riots in Watts, L.A.
1966
-Robert C. Weaver becomes the first African-American to serve in the United States cabinet
-Edward W. Brooke, Republican attorney general of Massachusetts, is elected to a Senate seat
-Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Barbara Jordan, two African American women, are elected to state political offices

1966
-Bobby Seale and Huey Newton found the Black Panther Party
-Stokely Carmichael is the new head of the SNCC

1967
-Thurgood Marshall is the first African American to be appointed to the Supreme Court
-Carl B. Stokes is elected mayor of Cleveland, Ohio
-Richard G. Hacker is elected mayor of Gary, Indiana

1967
-The summer of 1967 is called the "Hot Summer", there are over 40 riots in the ghettos of the North
-H. Rap Brown becomes chairperson of the SNCC

 

Implications of Race and Class

He tackled General Motors the same way he had the campus of Dartmouth, quietly disappearing behind his extraordinary record as regional sales representative, business manager, vice president of consumer affairs, and finally assistant to the executive director. But the stakes where a lot higher there, with no room for error; any break in his stride, any telltale mannerism or slip of the tongue might shatter the illusion he was standing behind. (Linden Hills 104)

Virgil Tibbs finds himself in rural Mississippi, a narrow minded and backward environment. He is confronted with a "bunch of nerds", be it the owner of the town's diner or the pathetic Mr. Endicott, who does not win the sympathy of the audience when he cries over the loss of the good old times: back then he could have Tibbs killed for his disrespectful conduct. Jewison makes it easy for a white audience to side with a self-confident African American, who takes on the role of the archetypal outsider and brings a glimpse of the 20th century to Sparta, Mississippi. He seems to stand for a new generation of Blacks, seems to combine aspects of King and Carmichael when he does not hesitate to slap a white man in the face on having been slapped first for simply doing his job as a police officer. Thus, Tibbs/Poitier seems to gratify the rising racial tension of the time. This, however, is not the case at all: Tibbs is much rather a very ambitious individual, who has managed to conceal his pigmentation behind his education, his dress code, and his wealth, because, as chief Gillespie/Rod Steiger points out,"We sure don't wanna ruffle a man who makes 162 dollars and 39 cents a week." Although Gillespie intends to mock his adversary, Tibbs' success is based on his social position only. Upon closer consideration he has nothing in common with King or Carmichael, but rather represents an all American success story; he does not stand for Black Power but much rather becomes the personification of a tired white cliché, the American Dream. The fact that he is black and visits his mother in the South has an average audience assume that he was born into a lower-class background. Things have obviously changed for our hero, however: his immaculate dress, his education, his sophisticated language and last but not least his knowledge of orchids are all upper-class signifiers. The color of his skin is no longer important; he makes it disappear behind his perfect appearance and a perception of life which turns out to be more conservative than that of sheriff Gillespie himself. Virgil Tibbs is no threat to the establishment and thus race is not the true issue of this film. While Tibbs may have traits of a new black militancy, his life, his career and what he stands for, mirror the Puritan work ethic in an almost Algerian fashion. His loyalty is with United States' law and not with "his people", as Gillespie puts it. He has nothing to do with the black people who pick Endicott's cotton and he shows no interest in the new factory and the potential jobs for black workers. He remains in Sparta, Mississippi, against all odds because he wants to prove to the world that he believes in the law and that he is smarter than everybody else.

Stanley Kramer's Dr Prentice also happens to be smarter than everybody else. He has a job which emphasizes his intellectual as well as his moral sophistication. He seems flawless, in control of his every emotion and thus devoid of human complexity; in fact, he doesn't seem human at all. He has successfully done away with the ability to show passion. The only time he resembles a man in love and in desperation concerning the utterly "imperfect" match he is about to make, is a short but heated conversation with his father. There his words seem to reflect the spirit of the time, when he says that as opposed to his father he doesn't want to succeed as a black man but he wants to succeed as a man. The rest of the movie, however, presents an African American character whose pigmentation disappears behind his achievement. He manages to cross the color line on preconditions strictly determined by class. Although Kramer's film becomes political when it employs the theme of interracial marriage, Dr Prentice is the least political African American one could imagine. He cannot even afford to express sympathy for Martin Luther King, when the black maid of the house ridicules the idea of black emancipation.
The maid has a very important function as some kind of a comic mediator. She is a direct descendant of Dilsey in Gone with the Wind, she is the Hollywood image of the prototypical black Mammy, who cheerfully devotes her whole life to some white family. This figure has a long tradition in film and literature, but according to James Baldwin, "she assuredly does not love the white family so deeply as they are compelled to suppose." He adds that, "(…) black men have mothers and sisters and daughters who are not like that at all." In real life this maid has a family of her own, she may even have a doctor for a son (Devil 87).
The movie tries hard to provide consolation for a white audience. Dr Prentice, as a successful, outstanding individual, dares to propose to a white girl because he perceives himself as an exception to the rule. he does not at all convey a profound belief in black equality.

Both films fail to convey what they claim to present; one will not find many aspects which distinguish these movies from Hollywood productions like Gone with the Wind or - as James Baldwin states - Birth of a Nation.(Devil 86) In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's coming to Dinner do not really pose painful questions, the characters accept that the only way to cross the line is outstanding achievement, and those not among the "lucky few" to make it, gratefully accept that they are born to serve, passionately condemning those who dare to disrespect the "natural order". African Americans in these films cater to the racial phantasy of the superior culture. These movies are not really about reconciliation, they do not convey the highly charged racial tension at the time, they much rather turn race into a vehicle for the ramifications of class in American society.

There was never any danger of his breaking down: sanity lies in consistency. And Maxwell retained his mental health by exercising the same type of control over every aspect of his being. Since he couldn't manipulate the weather outside his home, he adjusted his body accordingly, but once inside his carefully appointed duplex, an elaborate series of humidifiers and thermostats enabled him to determine exact conditions under which he would eat, sleep, or sit. He found the erratic rhythms and temperatures that normally accompany sex a problem, so he rarely slept with a woman. He didn't consider it a great deprivation because before he was even thirty, an erection had become almost as difficult to achieve as an orgasm, and hence he would save himself the trouble until he was married and just had to. In short, his whole life became a race against the natural - and he was winning.
(Linden Hills 104)

 

Oscar's 2002

On Oscar night 2002, Academy President Frank Pierson says that Sidney Poitier is awarded an Honorary Oscar "for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen, and for representing the motion picture industry with dignity, style and intelligence throughout the world." He adds," When the Academy honors Sidney Poitier, it honors itself even more."

Mr. Poitier's career has spanned more than 50 years, and he has been nominated for two leading actor Oscars, in 1958 for his role in The Defiant Ones and in 1963 for Lilies in the Field for which he won the statuette.

Sidney Poitier's acceptance speech:

I arrived in Hollywood at the age of 22, in a time different than today's. A time in which the odds against my standing here tonight, 53 years later, would not have fallen in my favor. Back then, no route had been established for where I was hoping to go. No pathway left in evidence for me to trace. No custom for me to follow.
Yet, here I am this evening at the end of a journey that, in 1949, would have been considered almost impossible - and, in fact might have never set in motion were there not an untold number of courageous, unselfish choices made by a handful of visionary American filmmakers, directors, writers, and producers, each with a strong sense of citizen responsibility to the times in which they lived. Each unafraid to permit their art to reflect views and values - ethical and moral - and moreover, acknowledge them as their own. They knew the odds that stood against them and their efforts were overwhelming and likely could have proven too high to overcome. Still those filmmakers persevered, speaking through their art to the best in all of us. And I benefited from their efforts, and in ways large and small, the world has also benefited from their efforts.
Therefore, with respect, I share this great honor with the late Joe Mankiewicz, the late Richard Brooks, the late Ralph Nelaon, the late Darryl Zanuck, the late Stanely Kramer, the Mirish brothers, especially Walter, whose friendship lies at the very heart of this moment. Guy Green, Norman Jewison, and all others who have had a hand in altering the odds, for me and for others.
Without them, this most memorable moment would not have come to pass. And the many excellent young actors who have followed in admirable fashion might not have come, as they have, to enrich the tradition of American filmmaking, as they have.
I accept this award in memory of all the African American actors and actresses who went before me in difficult years. On whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go. My love and my thanks to my wonderful, wonderful wife, my children, my grandchildren, my agent and friend Martin Baum and, finally, to those audience members around the world who have placed their trust in my judgement as an actor and filmmaker. I thank each of you for your support through the years. Thank you.

I greatly admire the art and the achievement of Sidney Poitier. I do believe that his presence on the screen and his role of the first African American Hollywood star made it possible for the younger generation of African American actors to see the path in front of them. He is one of the most charismatic figures in film ever, but one must not forget the fact that Hollywood has not yet produced a movie to really capture the ramifications of race in American society.
From the vantage point of the year 2002, one is very much aware of Hollywood's implied racism especially in those ventures which are presented as being most daring and liberal.
Virgil Tibbs and Dr John Wade Prentice have a lot in common with Gloria Naylor's Maxwell Smyth. Mainstream film has instrumentalized Sidney Poitier in order to produce a "light" version of African American masculinity.

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Works cited

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (New York: Dell Publishing, 1976).

Tim Dirks, "In the Heat of the Night (1967)", http://www.filmsite.org/inth.html (accessed on 19 Nov 2001)

Gloria Naylor, Linden Hills (London: Minerva, 1985).

Werner Sollors ed., The Invention of Ethnicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989)

 

© ISABEL URBAN