THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘In the Heat of the Night’ (1967)

In 1968, the 40th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1967 and December 31, 1967, the awards were held on April 10. The awards were originally scheduled for April 8, but were postponed for the first time in Oscars history, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4.

Prior to the postponement announcement, four prominent African-American stars (Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, and Dihann Carroll) were scheduled to appear at the ceremony, but withdrew in mourning for Dr. King. After the awards were rescheduled, all four reversed their decision, and appeared as originally planned.

With black-and-white films beginning to become a rarity in the film industry, the awards for Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume Design were permanently combined into single categories. After noting several years of attendees noticeably missing the ceremony, Academy President Gregory Peck publicly insisted nominees do their utmost to attend. He was successful, and 18 of the 20 acting nominees were in attendance. Best Actress winner Katherine Hepburn could not attend, due to filming conflicts keeping her in France. The other was the late Spencer Tracy, who was nominated posthumously.

This year marked the first and only time in Oscars history two films received nominations in all four acting categories, with both Bonnie and Clyde and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner achieving this feat. It was also the first time three films each achieved nominations in the “Big Five”categories, with Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Graduate all receiving nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. The Graduate made history by winning Best Director for Mike Nichols and no other categories. This feat has never been repeated.

The night’s big winner was the groundbreaking and confronting In the Heat of the Night, which took home five awards from its seven nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor for Rod Steiger, and Best Adapted. Surprisingly, the film’s star Sidney Poitier failed to receive a nomination. Many believe his work in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may have resulted in a voter split, causing him to be nominated for neither film.

The nominees:
Bonnie and Clyde
Doctor Dolittle
The Graduate
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
In the Heat of the Night

The winner:
In the Heat of the Night

Based on John Ball’s 1965 novel of the same name, In the Heat of the Night is the tale of a murder investigation, led by the unlikeliest of partners. After the murder of Philip Colbert, a wealthy factory owner, in the fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi, the immediate suspect is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), an African-American man, who happens to be innocently waiting for a train shortly after Colbert’s body is discovered. Racial profiling leads to his arrest, but police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is shocked to learn Tibbs is actually a detective himself from Philadelphia, and a leading expert in homicide. At the insistence of the murdered man’s wife, Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant), Tibbs is assigned to assist with the case, much to the chagrin of the racist and bigoted members of the town. As the investigation continues, Tibbs’ very life could well be in danger, as the pursuit of the killer leads him directly into the heart of one of America’s most racially volatile areas.

Why did it win?
Marking the beginning of a new era of socially relevant and daringly confronting Best Picture winners (well, bar next year’s more traditional choice, which we’ll get to tomorrow), In the Heat of the Night represented the changing tone of American cinema, and the changing taste of the Academy Awards. Just looking at the nominees for Best Picture (minus one) highlights the evolution of cinema beyond the visually flashy, light narrative films of the past. Cinema was daring to be different, and the Academy were taking notice.

In the Heat of the Night was biting, controversial, and relevant. It bravely shone the light on the shameful racial problems still prevalent in many southern states of America in the 1960s. Problems which are still there right now, over 50-years later. The production was so contentious, it couldn’t even be filmed in the deep South, out of fear of angering the locals. Poitier was still traumatised after being trailed by KKK members during a recent visit to Mississippi with Harry Belafonte, and refused to subject himself to the anxiety of filming in the region. This production trait only added to the film’s power and relevance, and the response was remarkable.

On a slim budget of only $2 million, the film earned over $24 million at the US box-office, and ended the year as the 12th highest-grossing film of 1967. The film also received positive reviews with critics, with many hailing it as a turning point for African-American representation in cinema. The New York Times called it “a film that has the look and sound of actuality and the pounding pulse of truth,” while Variety hailed it as “an absorbing contemporary murder drama.”

While there were several strong contenders this year, none were as potent and eye-opening as In the Heat of the Night. The film marked the first Best Picture winner featuring a non-white leading actor, and also the first police drama to take the top prize. The Academy had a tough choice, but it’s clear they felt one film was simply more important and timely than its competitors.

Did it deserve to win?
When you analyse four of the five films in contention for Best Picture in 1967, it’s almost impossible to say one was the most deserving. It genuinely represents the strongest year of contenders we’ve seen in Oscars history, to this point. We have two films concerned with serious racial issues and the experience of African-Americans in modern America. We have a film with brutal and graphic violence, and a pair of anti-heroes unlike anything in cinema preceding it. And a film with a daring and controversial romance which ushered in a new era of filmmaking. Oh, and Doctor Dolittle, which we’ll just pretend isn’t actually here. How you pick just one is beyond me.

But, as is the way of the Oscars, one film needed to be chosen, and, even though it may not necessarily represent the “best” film of the year, In the Heat of the Night was a bold and unique choice for Best Picture. It represented a new breed of Best Picture winners. It highlighted a subject many were choosing to ignore. And, after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it took on even more power and relevancy. Here was a film showcasing the ugly truth of America in the 1960s, and delivering a new cinematic hero to defy racist stereotypes and challenge the ideas of what constitutes a leading man.

Despite his baffling lack of a nomination, Poitier is magnificent as the strong but flawed Tibbs. When he delivers that infamous line “They call me Mister Tibbs,” you still get goosebumps. And, without giving too much away, his impulsive and immediate reaction to being slapped by a racist plantation owner is one of the most powerful moments in cinema. The intensity Poitier gives his character is astonishing, and it stands as perhaps the finest performance of his incredible career. Tibbs’ scenes with Chief Gillespie are electric, thanks to Steiger’s equally powerful performance, as a man conflicted by expectation and a yearning desire to be a beacon of change.

The film dared to ask some extremely tough questions about the state of America, without offering any easy solutions or answers. Given the current state of the country, those questions are once again as relevant as they were in 1967. Its stark portrayal of the Deep South is unflinching and unrelenting, and it still stands as one of the most deeply important works for the African-American community. It blended an entertaining and gripping murder mystery with powerful and relevant social issues, and that has to be admired. And it cast an African-American actor as its leading man. That too has to be celebrated.

In the Heat of the Night is far from a perfect piece of cinema. The narrative is filled with some obvious plot holes, and the conclusion is far too convenient. But its elevated by the incredible performances of it co-leads, and the powerful relevance and importance of its socially conscious narrative. It’s a rare year where you can say no one film was really 100% deserving of winning Best Picture. It’s too hard to be so simplistic with such a stellar year of achievements. But, if it had to be just one, the Academy still made a great choice with In the Heat of the Night.