Friday, April 04, 2008

In the Heat of the Night


Over Spring Break, I enjoyed seeing In the Heat of the Night, an old favorite, with much of my immediate family in North Carolina. It was a perfect time to see it as it's very pertinent to today's atmosphere. Race tensions are in many ways as fraught in 2008 as they were in 1967, when Detroit experienced a major riot, and on this day in 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. Someone tries to hurt Barrack Obama this year and things might feel like they haven't changed at all. But all things being equal, they have changed -- a little. Today the US is not fighting in Vietnam, but we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been a few changes in legal protections and the use of language; overt racism is more quickly condemned. But . . . while we've strengthened some civil rights, we've also lost ground, too, rationalized by the government at all levels in their waging of the so-called "War on Terror."

In the Heat of the Night features Sidney Poitier as a Northern detective ("They call me Mr. Tibbs") and Rod Steiger as a Southern cop. They have to overcome the racial divide and work together and their evolving relationship is at the core of the movie. The story is set in Sparta, Mississippi, but much of the film was shot in Sparta, Illinois. This is fitting as, believe it or not, racial issues in the USA are not confined to any one area of the country and in fact permeate almost everywhere.


I love comparing the two DVD covers above. The first one shows Tibbs as strong but less threatening, with Steiger's white cop character looking on: I call this the Martin Luther King, Jr. cover. In the second one, Tibbs carries a stick and in the background there's the hint of a lynch mob mentality he'll have to contend with. I call this one the Malcom X cover.

When MLK spoke at the "Great March on Detroit" on June 23, 1963, he offered a Detroit version of the "I Have a Dream" speech. It included this line: "I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job. . ." The dream stands -- reality has not caught up. King gave a slightly more refined Dream speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.

When Malcolm X delivered his "Message to the Grassroots" in Detroit on October 10, 1963, he deplored the term "Negro" and advocated its replacement with "black." [The change in common parlance worked, in addition to use of "Afro-American" (mostly 1970s) and "African American;" black and African American seem equally acceptable in 2008. The term "Negro" now seems antiquated]:

"I would like to make a few comments concerning the difference between the black revolution and the Negro revolution, " he said. And he did. He also quipped: "Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research." And he was right.

Finally, it's worth noting that both MLK and Malcolm X opposed the Vietnam War and would undoubtedly have opposed the Iraq War.

Today's Rune: Initiation.

8 comments:

the walking man said...

I was 9 almost 10 in '63 and remember the MLK speech he gave here. Some said it was the match to white flight and others praised it as a good talk, while others just said why do they have that nigger on TV so much, he's ruining the nation.

It took me and Malcolm X quite a few more years to catch up,he'd been dead maybe ten years by then.

Among other things the word FREEDOM above a butterfly tattooed on my shoulder when I was 17 and in the navy is there to remind me that with Freedom and Deja VU (the word below the butterfly) we can change and truly fix our nation.

Peace

mark

Charles Gramlich said...

I did like "in the Heat of the Night" when it was on, though I was never able to catch it regularly.

Erik Donald France said...

Thanks for the comments, dudes -- always interesting and appreciated.

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