They Call Me Mister Tibbs!

Watched as part of the August 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Christian Alec's master list
#5: Watch a film starring a Summer Under the Stars on TCM star Sidney Poitier

2017 movie viewings, #113 and 114. As regular readers know, I recently read Mark Harris' excellent book Pictures at a Revolution as part of a scavenger hunt task this month related to it (see my review of the book here), which essentially takes a look at the making of the five movies nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar in order to tell a grander tale about the birth of what we now know as "New Hollywood;" and that it was in fact so excellent, I decided that instead of the one movie from that list I was originally planning on reviewing (Doctor Dolittle, which I reviewed yesterday), I would review four out of the five, everything but the now badly dated Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, which despite its progressive theme of interracial marriage is thoroughly a product of the antiquated '50s studio system that the mavericks of the "New Hollywood" were distinctly fighting against. And this happens to dovetail nicely with another task from this month's hunt; namely, to watch a movie starring Sidney Poitier, for which I had picked the now completely forgotten They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!, a sequel to the 1967 Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night, which is why I've combined both viewings into one extra-long review today.

It's largely been forgotten by mainstream society now, but Poitier actually had this fascinating history in Hollywood as a young man, one that led to a sort of perfect storm in the late '60s which is not only what produced Heat but got it the Best Picture win. Because for those who don't know, starting in the late '50s Poitier basically became the "token black man" in Hollywood, the one celebrity that studios could use over and over so to claim that they were doing something about racism and lack of diversity in their movies. ("Lack of diversity?! WE'VE GOT SIDNEY POITIER! There he is right there, see? There's a black man in our movie right there, can't you see??!!") Poitier was a perfect person for this position because he was so dignified, well-spoken, and classically attractive, and the movies that were built around him (such as A Raisin in the Sun, Lilies of the Field and To Sir, With Love) tended to make him impossibly intelligent and noble in order to show racist audiences that, yes, a black man really can be this great; but even as he became the first black man in history to garner an Oscar, and the first black celebrity to earn over a million dollars, the ever-more revolutionary civil rights leaders of the '60s were denouncing both him and his "willing cooperation" in defanging African-Americans, accusing him of being a well-dressed Uncle Tom who looked white, spoke white, and only cared about white issues, cuckolded in one well-meaning movie after another because white America was terrified of admitting that black men could do things like have sex or get angry.

And let's be clear, most of their criticisms were true; especially blatant was the fact that Poitier was never allowed to express even the tiniest amount of sexual desire on-screen, even in movies that are explicitly love stories like 1965's A Patch of Blue (in which a white woman falls in love with Poitier, but it's okay because she's literally blind so doesn't know any better); because it was still an age when racist audiences would rather burn down a movie theater than allow it to show a movie in which black people share a kiss, and the film industry is in the business of making money, not self-sabotaging their own distribution channels. But 50 years later, we can also acknowledge that the situation was much more complicated than these simplistic arguments give it credit, and that Poitier turned in some amazing performances within an industry where he walked a very thin and very dangerous tightrope in order to have a career at all; hell, even Poitier's most vocal opponent in those years, activist Clifford Mason, admitted in 2008 that he unfairly "jumped all over Sidney because I wanted him to be Humphrey Bogart when he was really Cary Grant."

So that leads us to 1967 and the perfect storm that led to In the Heat of the Night; adapted from an existing crime novel by John Ball, and directed by Norman Jewison, who got his start in '50s television but in the Postmodernist era pivoted into social-issue movies like F.I.S.T., ...and justice for all and A Soldier's Story (not to mention such crowdpleasers as Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar and Moonstruck, as well as...um, Rollerball), he and adapter Stirling Silliphant decided to take the box-office-friendly source material and push it in an edgier direction to reflect the times, making Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs (who in our movie is visiting a relative in the Deep South, first getting wrongly accused of a murder by the local racist sheriff and then eventually ordered by his superiors to stick around and help him solve the case) angrier and more headstrong than he is in the novel, an urban Northern Yankee who's comfortable with his rights and independence as a strong black man, and who doesn't have the time or patience for the cartoonish cracker shenanigans of the local white-trash rubes. (In one of this movie's most notorious scenes, almost cut because Jewison originally found it too cheesy, Rod Steiger's racist sheriff Gillespe keeps giving Poitier a hard time for being a black man named Virgil, eventually drawling out, "Say, boy, what do they call you up around where you live?," to which Poitier swiftly barks out, "They call me MISTER TIBBS!")

This script-tweaking finally gave Poitier the first role of his career with real bite, which eager young audiences ate up with a spoon (Harris relates a great story in his book about how Jewison thought the movie was a disaster when he first watched it in front of an audience of young people, who kept laughing and applauding during all the serious moments, until his young assistant explained to him, "No, they're doing that because they love that Poitier is getting away with his behavior"); and in the meanwhile, middle-aged audiences showed up in droves because of the genre nature of the story and because of Poitier's existing box-office power, and the producers deliberately made the film for the tiny budget of $2 million specifically so they wouldn't have to show the movie in the Deep South at all in order to make a profit, a strategy that paid off big-time when the movie eventually won the Best Picture Oscar and went on to generate $24 million in revenue (an especially big payday for Poitier, who deferred his upfront salary for a cut of the profits instead, which in a single year turned him into the highest-paid actor in the world, no matter what the race).

And along with all this, Jewison brought some technical innovation to the movie as well, another big part of its success; namely, he pushed veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler to ditch the overly-lit, no-shadow look of '50s Hollywood in order to bathe the movie in moody, darkly saturated lights and shadows, effectively making what you could legitimately call "the world's very first color film noir." (And the back-end crew innovations don't stop there; the film's clever, chance-taking editor was Hal Ashby, who would eventually become a major director in New Hollywood himself, for films such as Shampoo, Bound for Glory and Harold and Maude.) And sure, leftists at the time complained that this movie didn't go far enough in its revolutionary anger (one of the big complaints that directly led to the sex-and-violence-drenched blaxploitation genre in these same years), complaining that the movie comes to too pat a conclusion about racial strife, and especially noting the scene near the end where a weary Gillespe and Tibbs bond over their loner cop lives over a bottle of bourbon; but to me, viewing it 50 years later, this is one of the saving graces of the movie, that it's ultimately about a racist cop in a racist land who just happens to even more respect when a person has street smarts and does good police work, and how every assumption he's ever had about the world gets called into question when he meets a black cop who's actually good at his job and doesn't take any shit, his respect for the badge ultimately trumping his disdain for African-Americans. It's the frisson that Gillespe experiences that's the real heart of this movie, which makes it inherently more interesting than if the message about race had been simplified either in one direction or the other.

Of course, not a lot of people know this; but as Harris points out in his book, the entire reason Heat even got greenlit in the first place was because the producers thought it had a good chance of getting turned into a running franchise, much like the James Bond films that were becoming an unstoppable juggernaut for the first time in these same years (which is kind of amazing when you think about it, in that here in 2017 we still don't have a long-running franchise with a black main character). And so three years later we got the first sequel to Heat, named for the film's previously mentioned most famous line, which now that I've seen it can assure you is a complete freaking disaster, making it obvious why none of us were even aware that Heat had a sequel in the first place (much less a third movie in the series, 1971's The Organization, in which Tibbs is literally assigned to track down and arrest a group of Black-Panther-like urban revolutionaries, which I'm assuming is why this budding franchise died an ignoble death at that point and has never been revived since).

Surprisingly written by the otherwise respected Alan Trustman (The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt), but unfortunately directed by octogenarian schlockmeister Gordon Douglas (whose career literally went all the way back to the "Our Gang" films of the 1920s), Tibbs moves both our hero and our story to swingin' '60s San Francisco, entirely eschewing all the racial tension of the first film for instead a cheese-filled murder-mystery regarding a dead hippie and a corrupted liberal social-justice minister (a scenery-chewing Martin Landau); and instead of being the angry rebel, Tibbs here is now the straight-laced, short-haired Long Arm Of The Law, in a script that's so Establishment-friendly square that it makes Dragnet look daring and experimental in comparison. Now add to this its drab, oversaturated, '50s-looking cinematography, the cheesy fake sets where all the scenes were filmed (seriously? Your film is set in late-'60s San Francisco and you still filmed the whole thing inside a bunch of plaster boxes in Los Angeles?), and just the general cheap TV-show quality of nearly all its production details, and you're left with a movie that not only ignored every single thing that made its predecessor work, but that seems like it looked at all of these things and said "Fuck your hippie nonsense," and deliberately did the exact opposite specifically to spite the producers of the original film.

It's no wonder, then, that the very existence of these later two films have been completely forgotten by history at large, and you should do yourself a favor and not even watch them for ironic enjoyment; but absolutely you should pick up the original In the Heat of the Night as soon as possible, especially here during the film's 50th anniversary, a sometimes shockingly progressive artifact from an industry that was still actively rebelling against such progressiveness, which made its Best Picture win even more important and precedent-forming than normal. No wonder Harris chose this particular year to write an entire 400-page book about; its movies hold untold amounts of fascinating pleasures.

UPDATE: As several other reviewers point out, and that I forgot to mention in my original write-up, Tibbs also makes a laughable mess out of continuance issues on top of everything else; after explicitly stating that he's single and childless in the original, Tibbs is given a wife and child in the sequel, and while Heat explicitly mentions Philadelphia as Tibbs' hometown, the sequel posits that he's lived in San Francisco his entire life. Just one more thing to add to this terrible, terrible movie's unending list of cinematic sins.

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