Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
By 1967, the racial problems in The United States had practically exploded into an all-out war in the streets, and the worst was still to come. Executives at Columbia and United Artists both individually chose this moment to address the issue by putting out three separate films that softened the impact by packaging it into easily digestible genre pieces. It should surprise no one that all three starred Sidney Poitier.
First was To Sir, With Love a drama written, produced and directed by the novelist James Clavell (I’ll bet you didn’t know that) about a novice teacher who is assigned to a group of troubled kids at a London school.
Second was Norman Jewison’s adaptation of James Ball’s novel In the Heat of the Night, a police drama about a black cop from Chicago who is recruited to help a white police chief with a difficult (and admittedly inconsequential) murder while traveling through the Mississippi delta.
Finally was Stanley Kramer’s Guess Whose Coming to Dinner, a vanilla-flavored dramedy about an interracial couple (Portier and Katherine Houghton) who run into problems when the girl introduces her fiance to her parents (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy).
None of these films were particularly shattering especially when compared with the racial firestorm that was happening out in the world, but you have to give it to studio execs credit for at least giving the matter some consideration. Yet, looking back it is hard to avoid the fact that, while they were admirable, they were also a bit safe, right down to the casting of Poitier who was destined to be the one African-American actor that white America could feel comfortable with.
I can say nothing of To Sir, With Love because I haven’t seen it, but on the matter of the other two films, I can say that Kramer’s film is more upfront about the subject while Jewison’s film is the better movie. In the Heat of the Night works because of the acting.
Rod Steiger (who won Best Actor) as the southern sheriff and Poitier (who should have) as the sturdy Chicago cop who famously proclaims that “They call me MISTER Tibbs!” have great chemistry together and their performances are top notch. But it is the movie itself that I struggle with. The heated vestibule of race relations always, to me, seemed buried in a murder plot that I really found hard to care about. There’s a white businessman whose been murdered and someone in the small Mississippi town is responsible, but why do I care? Perhaps if the victim had been black and the Steiger character wanted to do something but was curtailed by a system that wanted him to drop the whole thing, maybe the film could have had a bit more juice. But, as it is, I’m left with two brilliant performances in a story that I just didn’t care about.