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Trayvon Martin, Virgil Tibbs, And Why ‘In The Heat Of The Night’ Still Matters

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"Trayvon Martin, Virgil Tibbs, And Why ‘In The Heat Of The Night’ Still Matters"

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Credit: The University Of Wisconsin

“I still don’t understand what Trayvon Martin was supposed to do,” Amy Davidson wrote in the New Yorker last week, pondering the idea that Trayvon Martin could have somehow averted his own death at the hands of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of his killing last weekend on the grounds he’d been acting in self-defense. “I’ve asked before, and received many confident answers; since the moment George Zimmerman shot him dead, there has been no shortage of loudly stated certainty about his actions and explanations of how it all ought to have gone. Most are presented as self-evident. Many are contradictory. None are satisfying.”

I found myself thinking of Amy’s piece on Friday while, in preparation for a conversation I’m moderating with the director Norman Jewison tonight, I watched Jewison’s 1967 drama In The Heat Of The Night. The story of that film is different from the chronicle of Travyon Martin’s brief life and tragic death: the main character, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a grown man, and a Philadelphia policeman to boot, not a child. But while visiting his mother and passing through the small town of Sparta, Mississipp– much as Martin was visiting his father in the gated community where Zimmerman determined him to be suspicious–Tibbs has the misfortune to be waiting at the train station when a wealthy, white man is found to be murdered, and take into custody on account of his blackness. Martin was shot to death, while Tibbs escapes potential lynchings twice, and threats of being shot and whipped from white men, who are plainly nostalgic for a time when Tibbs would have had neither the protection of citizenship nor a professional connection to another police department which would spring into action were he to go missing. But both are stories about black men who are deemed suspicious in communities where they had every right to be, but where they were not well-known. And Tibbs’ misadventures in Sparta provide a potential answer to Amy’s question that’s not the one a great number of people want to hear: even if Trayvon Martin had found some way to make himself more comforting to George Zimmerman, he still might have ended up dead.

When Tibbs is detained at the Sparta train station, he’s doing absolutely everything he could be expected to do to appear harmless. His jacket is off as protection against the heat of a Mississippi summer night, so it would be hard to claim that he’s concealing a weapon. He’s reading, so his hands are visible, and full. And he’s not even looking up to see what’s happening around him. Policeman Sam Wood (Warren Oates) sees Tibbs before Tibbs sees him and has any sort of chance to respond. First, Sam tells Tibbs “On your feet, boy.” Tibbs complies and allows himself to be searched. Then, he orders Tibbs into the patrol car, telling Tibbs “You’re going to be a really nice, quiet boy all the way in. Hear me?” Tibbs gives him absolutely no trouble.

Once at the police station, Tibbs has plenty of facts and figures on his side: the time of the train he was planning to catch out of town, the explanation for why he earns a salary of $162.93 a week, a figure that ruffles Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) because “Colored can’t earn that kind of money. That’s more than I make in a month,” a badge, and the the number of his chief in Philadelphia. And while ultimately that last figure gets him removed from immediate suspicion, it doesn’t get him out of Sparta: his chief asks Tibbs to stay in town and help solve the murder of the dead man as a courtesy to the so-called brother officers who have profiled him and harassed him.

What’s required of Tibbs subsequently is an extraordinarily display of deference and patience that’s meant to diffuse the animosity directed at him, as if Sparta’s bigotry is Tibbs’ responsibility, rather than that of the people who harbor it. “No sir, I’m not prejudiced,” he tells his chief on the phone, when the man is clearly asking Tibbs if he can work well with white men. “Am I mistaken, or has rigor set in?” Tibbs asks the town doctor, offering him an opportunity to save face by asking his opinion, and doing the same with Gillespie, inquiring “As you know, the loss of heat from the brain is the most reliable way to determine the time of death. Right, chief?”

When Tibbs and Gillespie go to visit Endicott (Larry Gates), a wealthy cotton planter who Tibbs suspects of the dead man’s murder because of their different approaches to Sparta’s economic future, Tibbs is even more subtle. “I didn’t know it was possible to grow this species locally,” Tibbs compliments Endicott’s flowers when they meet him in his greenhouse. “Oh, you like flowers?” Endicott wants to know, gratified by his interest. “I do,” Tibbs tells him eagerly. “I don’t know much about orchids, but I do like them.” There’s probably nothing Tibbs could have done to defuse Endicott’s angry reaction to being accused of murder, but his expression of intelligence and interest in Endicott’s passion for orchids also doesn’t work to win him the response a white man would receive after levying that allegation. Endicott slaps Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him back. “There was a time when I could have had you shot,” Endicott tells Tibbs with great loathing and nostalgia. In the vision of the South captured by In The Heat Of The Night, being, for the most part, a model minority provokes white resentment, not grudging admiration.

But that doesn’t mean that white people can’t change their attitudes and their behavior, and In The Heat Of The Night plays out that decision to be a different kind of person in the behavior of Chief Gillespie. Gillespie begins the movie by displaying a similar level of suspicion towards Tibbs that his officers do. “Why don’t you tell me how you killed Mr. Colbert, and I promise you you’re going to feel a whole lot better,” he tells Tibbs when Sam first brings him in. But unlike Sam’s initial actions, which are based purely in prejudice, Gillespie’s approach to Tibbs is based at least in part on trust in his officers. “Did you question this man before you brought him in?” he demands to know of Sam once it’s become clear that Tibbs is not, in fact, an obvious suspect.

And Gillespie’s racism intersects with other factors. There’s class resentment at Tibbs’ better police salary, though he has a lower rank than Gillespie, fueled by the North’s relative success in comparison to the South, the same basis for the conflict over Colbert’s decision to bring his factory to Sparta, a choice that’s sparked both gratitude and resentment. And Gillespie’s also profoundly an outsider in Sparta, as he explains to Tibbs in a memorable speech towards the end of the movie.“I got no wife, I got no kids, I got a town that don’t want me,” Gillespie confesses to Tibbs. “I got an air conditioner I have to oil myself, I got a desk with a busted leg, and on top of that, I got this place. Don’t you think that would drive a man to take a few drinks. I’ll tell you a secret. Nobody comes here. Never.”

His approach to Tibbs swings back and forth. When he accepts that Tibbs will be working on the case, he’s both resentful and grateful for the help. “Why can’t you look at it for yourself?” Tibbs wants to know. “Because I’m no expert. Officer,” Gillespie tells him. Later, he reluctantly accepts that Tibbs is correct that Harvey, the new suspect, couldn’t have killed Colbert because he is left-handed, though he makes that clear out of Tibbs’ presence so as to save face. When Tibbs wants to leave town, Gillespie presents two killer arguments that persuade him to stay. First, he explains that “This towns needs a factory, Virgil. Mr. Colbert came down from Chicago to build it. I hear they might hire 1,000 men. Half of them colored…That’s a lot of jobs for a lot of your people.” And when Tibbs rejects the idea that Sparta’s black community represent his people simply by virtue of their skin color, Gillespie perceptively notes that the chance to show up the white officers is too good to resist. “You know what, Virgil?” he tells the younger man. “I don’t think you could let an opportunity like this pass by.” When Gillespie told Tibbs “I try to run a nice, clean town here,” at their first meeting, he apparently meant it. He wants Colbert’s murder solved enough to keep Tibbs on it, and he’s irritated enough by the sense that local punks can commit racial violence with impunity, not because it’s racial, but because it’s an affront to his authority, that he’s willing to cold-cock one to protect Tibbs.

That doesn’t mean that Gillespie isn’t racist. But racism for him is often a refuge from larger problems, a reminder that even if he’s an outsider in a town where he has few resources to do his job, he still has his whiteness to fall back on. “It would give me a world of satisfaction to horsewhip you, Virgil,” he tells Tibbs when it seems like Tibbs might clear out and leave him in the lurch. And when he gets embarrassed in his moment of confession to Tibbs, asking “Don’t you get just a little lonely?” only to have Tibbs tell him “No lonelier than you, man,” Gillespie falls back on racism to preserve his own sense that he’s not emotionally pathetic. “Oh, now, don’t get smart, black boy. I don’t need it,” Gillespie tells Tibbs. “No pity, thank you.” But by this point in the movie, they seem to understand each other. Tibbs may be black and Gillespie may be white, but as long as he doesn’t get killed there, Tibbs is, at some point, going to get to leave Sparta.

And that means the long, hard work of making Sparta a better place is Gillespie’s, not Tibbs’. In a couple of days in town, Virgil Tibbs can solve a murder, but there’s very little he can do to disentangle Sparta from its racial politics, its class resentments, or its history. “You take care, y’hear?” Gillespie tells Tibbs as he gets on the train. But as Tibbs returns to the relative safety of Philadelphia, it may be Gillespie who needs the good luck as he remains behind.

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