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Has Anything Changed in 50 Years?
by Jon Schuller

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I recently wrote a column about 1967 ("A Momentous Year for Movies and Me.") and the many memorable films that came out that year; how many of them are still being watched and enjoyed today. I listed the top 25 money-makers and how they impacted so many aspects of the cinema and our daily lives. One of them was a ground-breaking picture winning 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for 1967. It touched on many sensitive subjects some as old as America itself which are still delicate ones today, 50 years later. The 2 leading male actors were not only popular but their acting talents made them huge box-office draws. It was a controversial film for its time, but again that's what movies are meant to do: showing us what the world is really like and how we must work hard to fix its problems. In The Heat of the Night premiered on August 2, 1967, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, it was directed by Norman Jewison, produced by Walter Mirisch, with the screenplay by Stirling Silliphant (based on a novel by John Ball), music by the great Quincy Jones and cinematography by Haskell Wexler.

Essentially, in
the small Mississippi town of Sparta, a wealthy Chicago businessman named Philip Colbert is murdered after meeting with a prominent Sparta citizen, Eric Endicott. Colbert was building a factory there that would have revived the town. Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) discovered the body and reached his chief, Bill Gillespie, to examine the body, determining Colbert was dead for only a short time. Wood immediately searches the silent town and discovers a well-dressed black man sitting at the train station. He immediately arrests him and takes him to the police station. Gillespie assumes he's guilty because he's black though elegantly attired and finds out that Virgil Tibbs is a homicide detective from Philadelphia. Gillespie calls Tibbs' chief and learns the embarrassing truth, including Virgil's salary and how much bigger it was than Chief Gillespie's. Tibbs' chief says that Tibbs can stay and help Gillespie because Tibbs is a top detective and closes cases.

Mrs. Leslie Colbert (Lee Grant) insists that Detective Tibbs work the case after he helps another suspect, wrongly accused by Gillespie, become free. She's impressed
enough to threaten that the factory won't open at all until the homicide is solved. The two men hesitantly begin to work together to solve the case.

They visit a rich, local businessman, Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), a known racist who's against the factory, to interrogate him. As Tibbs questions him, he becomes outraged at the accusations from a black man and slaps Tibbs who slaps him right back. That scene, dubbed "The slap heard 'round the world," made the film unique, controversial and popular. Reportedly, Poitier insisted it remained in the film to emphasize the attitudes still strong in the South. Black people didn't dare hit white people without fear of death. Gillespie wants Tibbs to leave but he says he's close to solving the murder.

They tell Sergeant Wood to retrace his route the night of the murder in his patrol car. But Wood is worried they'll find out he wasn't honest about where he drove that night. He was watching a young girl, Delores Purdy (Quentin Dean), who was an exhibitionist in her house. They stop at a local diner run by her brother, Lloyd Purdy (James Patterson), who claims Sam Wood got his sister
pregnant and murdered Colbert. But Tibbs knows who's guilty and confronts Purdy as a small mob, headed by a local tough guy named Ralph Henshaw (Anthony James), to frighten Tibbs. A fight ensues and Henshaw shoots Purdy. Henshaw is arrested, confesses to killing Colbert to get money for Delores to have an abortion. We see Tibbs and Gillespie at the same railroad station waiting for the train as Gillespie tells Tibbs "Virgil, . . you take care, . . you hear." It was Gillespie's way of giving grudging respect to Tibbs for solving the case and showing not everyone fits an old stereotype.

In the Heat of the Night broke box office and awards records as it laid bare the many racial and stereotypical problems which, I'm sad to say, still exist today. Chicago and many other American cities have once again seen terrible incidents of murder and violence, most, if not all, directed towards African-Americans. America makes progress in many things by taking small and tentative baby steps as we slowly work towards solving our long-standing struggles. I believe that we do fix difficulties, one person at a time, as the bad loses out to the good.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

It's Inevitable. Comparisons Will Be Made

In Just Two Short Weeks

Another Great Year for Movies

Some Guy Says You Get Power With Money.

Homage: Respect or Reverence Paid

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 29 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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