This weekend Bruce and I watched the classic 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night.” If you are not familiar with this cinematic classic, perhaps you can include it in an upcoming movie night. Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time – Sparta, Mississippi waiting for a train transfer in the middle of the night that a wealthy resident of Sparta is murdered. Tibbs is initially a suspect – simply by virtue of being a stranger, being black and having money in his wallet – but is quickly exonerated then asked to help in the investigation spearheaded by Sparta police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger). Tibbs and Gillespie forge an uneasy alliance as they search for the murderer. Throughout the film Tibbs’ safety is always at risk. His treatment by the citizens of Sparta runs the gamut from shielded animosity to overt hatred and violence.
Sidney Poitier made another well-known film in 1967 : “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” In this film, Poitier plays Dr. John Prentice, a highly renowned physician engaged to the white daughter of Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn). The film focuses on the Draytons’ initial shock learning of their daughter’s engagement to a black man, their gradual acceptance and their acknowledgement of the inevitable difficulties the mixed race couple will encounter.
These films were released over 50 years ago, and the styles of the clothing and the models of the cars are certainly dated. The topics, though, are very much of the moment: the suspicion and danger encountered by a black man traveling alone in a white community; the misgivings of a close knit family regarding a mixed race marriage. We like to think we are progressing and moving toward a more just society. Certainly, progress has been made. As I watched In the Heat of the Night, however, I kept thinking “this could still happen today – in 2021. It does happen today – in 2021.” I have watched both of these films several times previously, but this go around I really tried to ‘observe’ what was happening in the dynamics in the film between individuals, and between the ‘outsider’ and the community. How do we really treat each other? How do we treat those new to our community? Do we equally welcome new neighbors, community members and parishioners regardless of race, ethnicity, faith or sexual orientation? Do we accept differences? Sometimes a frank assessment of our ‘knee-jerk’ reactions can be a bit disconcerting…are we practicing what we profess to believe? Do we ‘put feet to our faith?’ In the upcoming week, I challenge each of us to observe our reactions to those who are different. Do we see them? Hear them? Accept them? Do the situations posed in these 50 year old films resonate with us today?