|Sidney Poitier & Rod Steiger's characters bid |
farewell in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night
On the 50th anniversary of his Oscar-winning masterpiece, Jewison marveled at how relevant his examination of race in America still is today - as he observed:
"I can't believe it's been 50 years. It's amazing how people are telling me, 'You know, that film plays today just as well as it did then.' But I say, 'That's sad. To still have that kind of racial confrontation in America, that's sad.'"
Considering the unrest in Charlottesville last Saturday, the film remains as relevant as ever.
Jewison shared some insights in Galloway's THR article that film buffs would find interesting.
Like the fact that his first inclination was to approach actor Harry Belfonte for the role of African-American detective Virgil Tibbs, but because producer Walter Mirisch had previously cast Sidney Poitier as the lead in the 1963 classic Lilies of the Field (for which he became the first African-American to win Best Actor) Jewison agreed to meet with Poitier - as he told Galloway:
"I met with Sidney and he was so intelligent that I thought he would be brilliant. They wanted me to use George C. Scott [as Sheriff Gillespie], another actor who was very powerful, but I held out for Rod Steiger, I knew Rod was a Method actor. I felt like it would help, to tell you the truth, because Steiger looked like a redneck sheriff."
It was a choice that paid off, Steiger won the Best Actor Oscar, one of five In the Heat of the Night won including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
In a sad reflection of the times (the film was shot in 1966), Poitier agreed to do the film but told Jewison he didn't want to shoot on any locations in the south because he and Belafonte had had a frightening experience where a car they were in was chased and they were threatened in Georgia.
|Larry Gates, Poitier & Steiger in the infamous "Slap Scene"|
The scene where Endicott slaps Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him back was pretty intense for 1966 given the tense racial climate of the time - it was a pretty daring, and powerful, choice in terms of the screenplay and the director.
In late 1966 or early 1967 once shooting was done, Jewison happened to meet Bobby Kennedy while vacationing in Sun Valley, Idaho and he described the film to the then-presidential candidate.
Kennedy told him he thought it would be an important film and observed that, "Timing is everything, in politics and in art and in life itself."
Speaking of timing...
On Sunday night after finishing my previous blog about the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, I watched the 2015 film 99 Homes for the first time on DVD.
I found that it helped me to step back and think more deeply about the deep-seated anger and rage driving the Neo-Nazis, KKK members and members of the alt-right who participated in the Unite the Right rally last weekend.
As a screenwriter, I was taught that all good films are rooted in conflict; as the brilliant screenwriting teacher Robert McKee taught me (and many others) years ago, conflict drives the story.
It's the choices the character's must make in the face of that conflict that shape the story and define the film.
In Star Wars Luke decides to join Obi-Wan Kenobi and learn the ways of The Force, in The Godfather Michael Corelone decides to join the family business to help his injured father - you get the drift.
Good films, good screenplays, turn on those character choices - they propel the story off into exciting, unforeseen and sometimes unpredictable directions.
That essential character choice drives both In the Heat of the Night, and 99 Homes, but at the core, I think both films are vehicles for the exploration of rage that affects millions of people.
As director / writer Ramin Bahrani observed in an NPR interview with Kelly McEvers back in September of 2015, 99 Homes is a morality tale, or as he calls it " a deal with the devil film" that examines the question - what would someone do get what they want or protect the one's they love?
Actor Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, The Amazing Spiderman, Hacksaw Ridge) plays Dennis Nash, a Florida construction worker who loses his job in the midst of battling a bank foreclosure on his home - which he put up as equity for an $85,000 loan he can't pay back.
|Dennis Nash hugs his mom as they're thrown out|
of their house in 99 Homes
The family of three have nothing packed and are given minutes to throw some things in Dennis' pickup truck before being forced to watch as the laborers carry everything they own out onto the front lawn as the neighbors stand by watching in horror.
After they find a motel to stay in that's populated by other families who've been evicted from their homes, Dennis goes to confront the laborers who removed his things over some missing tools, he finds himself being offered a job by the same real estate agent who evicted him the day before.
Desperate for money, he makes the devil's deal and the film follows his growing moral dilemma as he gets deeper and deeper into the shady business of making profit off people whose homes have been foreclosed on in an effort to get his family home back.
99 Homes is very much an updated modern take on Italian Neorealist director Vittorio De Sica's 1949 classic film that explores post-World War II Rome, The Bicycle Thief with it's theme of a young son who looks with scorn upon a desperate father trying to stave off economic ruin who turns into the very thing he despises in a heart-rendering effort to get back what was taken from him.
(If you're interested I blogged about De Sica's 1952 masterpiece Umberto D and the Italian Neorealism movement back in September of 2016)
|A familiar sight in America in 2008 - 2012|
Only to be bailed out by the same taxpayers whose lives and savings they decimated because they were deemed "too big to fail".
Watching some of the characters in 99 Homes, I could see how the anger, loss and sense of helplessness they felt could drive some people to seek dark outlets to vent their rage.
Against society or, as in the case of James Alex Fields who joined other white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia before he plowed a car into a group of innocent people, injuring 19 and killing a 32-year-old woman - venting their rage against people who don't look or worship like them.
As more information is revealed about Fields, we've learned that his father died before he was born and until very recently he'd been living with his mother in an apartment in Kentucky where they'd moved from Ohio so she could find work.
He joined the Army in August of 2015, perhaps to find purpose or direction, but four months later he was discharged for failing to meet the physical requirements of basic training.
According to various media accounts he'd been most recently working as a security guard, so like millions of Americans he was probably harboring a degree of resentment working a job which probably didn't pay well, or come with benefits like health care.
Apparently he found some solace or sense of purpose with other angry young white supremacists and Neo-Nazi's who were, or felt, disenfranchised from a society which didn't seem to value them; or validate their fragile sense of self.
|Thousands of KKK members march on Washington|
August 8, 1925
Historically, America has always seen a spike in racism and white supremacist activity during times of economic crisis, as in the 1920's when KKK membership soared nationwide - more than 50,000 KKK members paraded in Washington, D.C. on August 8, 1925.
An event that coincided with the U.S. economy beginning to spiral downwards towards the collapse of the stock market, massive unemployment nationwide and the Great Depression.
Sadly, we're seeing that trend towards rage as an outlet, and the normalization of hatred, repeat itself.
As wages remain stagnant, disparity in wealth is as high as its ever been, and the kinds of good paying manufacturing, assembly and heavy industry jobs that once helped the working and middle classes prosper in American, slowly disappear.
Lost to other countries with lower labor costs, or to technology and efficiency that requires less and less manpower; and left holding the bag are millions of disenfranchised Americans of all races, ethnecities and religious backgrounds.
|99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani|
Films like In the Heat of the Night and 99 Homes can help us understand where some of that rage comes from, but not enough to explain what we saw in Charlottesville.
Not by a long shot.
As director Ramin Bahrani observed during his NPR interview:
"it doesn't matter what side of the economic spectrum you're on, people are angry. They're angry about banks, they're angry about the government, they're angry about why is it that no matter how hard they work they're not getting anywhere? They're angry about why is it that they have part-time jobs that don't have benefits? They're angry about so many things. And that's a global anger. And I don't think this is going away. This is just going to be escalating over time."
Despite the overheated rhetoric of the Unite the Right protesters about "heritage", that rally wasn't about some musty old statue of Robert E. Lee - that rally was about something much darker and far more dangerous.
We as a society, along with our political leadership had better start figuring out what that is and how to confront it - or reality, as we saw in Charlottesville last Saturday, is going to start looking a lot stranger and more dangerous, than any fiction we see on a movie screen.