The latest in my series of books that have been films, I bring you In The Heat of The Night (1965) which became an Oscar winning film starring Sidney Poitier. I’ve seen most of the film a while ago, from what I can remember a lot of the plot was changed, but the basic premise remains the same. On a hot sticky night a murder has been committed in Wells, a small town in South Carolina and a lone black man is arrested. But he turns out to be Virgil Tibbs, a detective from California, who sticks around to help solve the murder.
‘Incidentally, Virgil is a pretty fancy name for a black boy like you. What do they call you around home where you come from?’
‘They call me Mr Tibbs,’ Virgil answered.
In the fly-leaf of the book it says that John Ball’s editor wanted him to make Virgil Tibbs white but he resisted. It’s weird to think how he could have been white when it seems like the racial tension within the book is the whole point of it. Constantly, Tibbs is reminded of his race and associated inferiority, having to use the coloured bathroom for example or sit outside a diner waiting for a sandwich because he isn’t allowed in.
It reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird and I think they make a nice companion piece, although TKAM is a much better book really. You can see why this book was made into a film, it’s only 158 pages long and not exactly literary genius. There are odd little paragraphs where characters remind themselves of things like, that they are professional police officers and need to act accordingly. It doesn’t read very naturally but would probably be quite handy to an actor wondering how his character felt about things.
One of the similarities between the two books was a sense of frustration I felt at the acceptance of this casual racism. In TKAM, its Atticus Finch, yes the lawyer who defends the black man on trial for rape but also defends his neighbours for their horrible racist attitudes. In In The Heat of The Night, it’s Tibbs himself who seems to accept how he is treated, and his quiet dignity throughout earns him the respect of the local police but drove me a little nuts.
‘Smartest black I ever saw,’ Pete concluded; then he added a remarkable tribute. ‘He oughta been a white man’.
He is also clearly smarter than any of them, and much more qualified to handle the case than the local Chief of Police resulting in horribly offensive comments like above.
Really, I found myself asking why marginalised peoples always have to be so much better than everyone else before they get treated with almost the same level of respect? And make me feel like these books aren’t the progressive classics they are made out to be…but maybe you had to be there at the time?