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In the Heat of the Night

December 3, 2011

So I’m still blasting through the AFI top 100 movies, and last night’s tickbox was In the Heat of the Night, a movie I’ve avoided watching almost entirely because I hate the title, and because it was the inspiration for a tremendously boring syndicated TV show that was on when I was a kid.

Since I saw it on the AFI list, I looked it up on Wikipedia:

The story of an African-American police detective from Philadelphia who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a racist small town in Mississippi.

Racism, social issues and crime-solving?! These are basically my three favorite things. I’m in!

I have no idea how accurate this movie is considered to be, but the racism is seriously bonkers. It’s so offensive it’s almost camp, and and I legitimately had trouble believing that this is the country I grew up in just a two decades before I was born.

This scene, for example, is a fucking scorcher:

There’s a point later in the movie where someone tells the (white) sheriff, ‘There was a time when you would have just shot that black fella and claimed self-defense’. Every American kid grows up learning about slavery and segregation and the injustice of racism, but it’s only recently that I’ve come to grips with the fact that it was basically legal to murder a black person for a significant portion of my country’s history.

Social Issues
ITHOTN sometimes feels like a movie by Northerners, for Northerners. A few scenes feel a bit extreme, like the filmmakers are trying to tell you look how bonkers Southern racism is. There’s a scene where Sydney Poitier is chased by hoodlums and nearly beaten to death for no apparent reason beyond his blackness.

So ITHOTN is basically a Message Movie. It  doesn’t take great pains to disguise its politics: Racism is bad, y’all.

That’s why it’s surprising how well it holds up. At its core, it’s basically just a film noir about a man solving a murder. Yes, it’s marinated in fried green redneckery, but each instance of racism serves primarily as an obstacle to solving the central conundrum, not as an excuse to demonstrate the moral failings of Dixie law enforcement officials.

In the Heat of the Night is a movie that, by taking its core plot seriously, makes you take the rest of it seriously too.

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