Thursday, 13 February 2014

In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967) and Racial Politics in Post-Civil Rights Act Hollywood

On Wednesday 12th February the Centre for American Studies was pleased to welcome Dr. Eithne Quinn (University of Manchester) to the department's 2013-2014 seminar series.  In what was an illuminating and engaging discussion, Dr. Quinn examined the role of Hollywood in late-1960s racial relations in her lecture “In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967) and Racial Politics in Post-Civil Rights Act Hollywood.”


Diverting from typical scholarship on the film that focused on the relationship between the characters of Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), and the provincial setting of Sparta, Mississippi, Dr. Quinn’s lecture examined post-Civil Rights Act Hollywood in the context of the production and release of Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. (1967)  Moving from the film’s role within contemporary discussions of a post-racial America to a post-racial Hollywood, Quinn deftly undermined the Hollywood projections the film arguably portrayed on the racial politics of the late 1960s, projections which typically contrasted the provincial, unenlightened and racially divided South with the progressive liberalism of the North and West Coast.  However, as Quinn argues, the post-racial discourses portrayed by Hollywood productions contrasted startlingly with the racial discrimination in the mechanisms of the industry.  It is through this examination of Hollywood’s internal mechanisms that Dr. Quinn argued that the film says more about racial attitudes in the North and West Coast than it does about the South.   Hollywood’s contrast between ideology and industry, exposition and actuality, framed the centre of Quinn’s lecture.

Dr. Quinn’s moved on to a discussion of ideas of the post-racial within the culture of Hollywood’s late-1960s productions.  She noted the rise of Sidney Poitier in 1960s Hollywood, particularly after his performance as the African-American homicide detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night.  Becoming not just one of the most prominent actors of the period, Dr. Quinn also notes that he became the most bankable African-American actor in American cinema, a title only relinquished to Will Smith in the noughties.  Poitier’s success in In the Heat of the Night, Dr. Quinn comments, exemplifies Hollywood’s imposition of racial discrimination solely within the isolated southern states, rather than within a wider national context, marking it as a product that avoids the complexities of racial attitudes for a narrative of northern self-congratulation.  

The film’s portrayal of an enlightened North against a racially divisive and backwards-thinking South was very much at odds with the reality of race relations in the late-1960s.  Most noticeably, Quinn reminds us that it was within this period of time that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was moving his campaign north to protest against northern racial discrimination, noticeably found in the squalid living conditions of poor black urban neighbourhoods and a lack of integration in education and employment.   These projects however, were not readily accepted by many northerners.  Although Quinn does take time to note the amount of northern white Americans who recognised and sympathised with this discrimination, many were not ready to accept it was an issue outside of the south.   Furthermore, as Dr. Quinn argued, even those who were earnest about solving the racial issues in the north could be characterised as being more condescending than helpful towards African-American activism, with many involving themselves in the issue with a sometimes paternalistic and unrealistic understanding of the complexities involved in the issue.  This social and cultural dissonance in the north towards issues of racial discrimination, either through patronising attitudes towards African-American activism, an indirectly racist promotion of a colour-blind, laissez-faire ideology held by many white Americans, and productions that reinforced these attitudes such as In the Heat of the Night, were encapsulated in what Stephen Steinberg deemed “the liberal retreat from race”, a phrase Dr. Quinn quoted in this segment.[1]

Dr. Quinn’s went on to examine the battle between ideology and industry in late-1960s Hollywood’s race relations.  The progressive rhetoric of Hollywood’s film productions framed in films such as In the Heat of the Night was much at odds with the racial discrimination inherent in the industry.  She made the point that in the wake of the Civil Rights Act enactment in 1965, Hollywood was particularly slow in responding to the legislation, and refused to accept black employees in the majority of its departments.  This contrast was prevalent in racially-conscious productions such as In the Heat of the Night, where behind the scenes few black workers worked on the film.  Additionally, Dr. Quinn interestingly discussed the development of the early drafts of the film that originally included certain elements of institutionalised racism in the north.  Those elements in the script that questioned northern racial discrimination were taken out.  Lines originally intended for Poitier’s character Virgil Tibbs were removed by director Norman Jewison on the grounds that they were too alienating to Northern audiences, and distracted from the focus on the relationship between the two main characters.  Dr. Quinn noted at this point how the commercial pressures of a large budget film has a tendency to create conservative cinema, and it is likely that it was these pressures in particular that instigated Jewison to remove the lines in exchange for a softer, more northern-friendly final draft.  Additionally, she discussed Sidney Poitier’s position within Hollywood and its contentious race relations, and how top Hollywood executives hindered racial integration within the industry by promoting Poitier as an example of their progressiveness.  She argued that Hollywood’s emphasis on the mere appearance of progressiveness through the promotion of a black bourgeoisie was a definably northern liberal approach to issues of race in the late-1960s.

In the final section of the lecture, Dr. Quinn examined the character of Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), and how Tibbs was promoted as an example of racial exception within the backdrop of the late-1960s.  Although Poitier’s performance as Virgil Tibbs, the embodiment of northern racial enlightenment, served to promote Hollywood’s own progressive stance on race, this perspective clashed constantly with Poitier’s own experiences.  She noted that though Poitier was normally very reserved about making comments about race, he did acknowledge his own difficulties working within Hollywood, especially at a time when he was the only prominent African-American star in a racially discriminatory industry.  Dr. Quinn provided an example of the difficulties he encountered during the production of In the Heat of the Night when he found himself becoming irritated at his co-star Rod Steiger- renowned for constantly staying in character as southern chief Bill Gillespie between takes- making numerous racist remarks during production.   Dr. Quinn pointed to the fact that the lack of support the film received from the local black population during production further illustrated this racial disconnect.  Her successive inclusion of Poitier’s comments on Hollywood’s racially-discriminatory hierarchy was very enlightening.  Commenting that it was white northern Americans who organised every facet of the Hollywood industry, from writing, casting, production and directing, Poitier regarded it as inevitable that issues of race were softened and misunderstood in cinematic productions.   Dr. Quinn went on to argue that it was this paradox between Hollywood’s ideology and its practise that enhanced Poitier’s performance as Tibbs, with the raw anger conveyed in his performance borne out of his own racial isolation within Hollywood.  She concluded that this illustrates the irony of Hollywood’s promotion of a post-racial ideology, where it used Poitier’s position as a prominent African-American actor to placate any demands to revise its own racial practises.  

Dr. Quinn’s lecture on racial politics in post-Civil Rights Act Hollywood was highly-engaging, moving through social, political and cinematic contexts with ease.  Her talk also made for a powerful revision of traditional treatments, not just of Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, but of Hollywood’s own treatment of race issues in the midst of a heated era.  Rather than simply being a film that exposes the racial prejudices of Mississippi, she demonstrated how it could very easily be turned on Hollywood, and in doing so, expose the limitations of northern liberalism in its treatment of race.  In doing so Dr. Quinn’s lecture illustrated how the complexities of race issues developed within the northern context of the late-1960s, but also highlighted its continued significance, and the diligence needed in monitoring our own forms of complicity with it in the present day.

By James Nixon
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Prof. Martin Halliwell (University of Leicester): “Trouble or Transcendence? Health, Illness and American Culture in the 1970s.” This will be held on Thursday 27th February 2014 in Room 202, 4 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

[1] Steinberg, Stephen, The Liberal Retreat From Race, New Politics, vol. 5, no.1 (new series), whole no. 17.  Web. Last accessed on February 13th.

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