The Birth of Hollywood Virtue-Signaling

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night (Moviestore Collection/Alamy)
Political considerations have influenced the Oscars since the 1960s.

Fifty years ago, a pathbreaking year for American cinema arrived. Two generation-defining films unlike anything anyone had seen before — Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate — challenged critics with new depths of irony and previously unseen layers of subtlety. “The big events of that period were the movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and 2001: A Space Odyssey,” recalled Roger Ebert in his memoir Life Itself. “The French New Wave had reached America. Time magazine put ‘The Film Generation’ on its cover.”

The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde continue to fascinate today — the elliptical ending of the former, the meaning of violence in the latter. These are films that set the stage for a new era at the cinema, genuine classics, films you watch over and over. Each was hugely successful with audiences (in inflation-adjusted dollars, The Graduate still ranks as one of the 25 biggest hits of all time at the U.S. box office, ahead of The Dark Knight and The Avengers). Each was also a major presence at the 1967 Academy Awards (presented in 1968). Bonnie and Clyde earned ten Oscar nominations; The Graduate, seven.

So which of them won the Oscar for Best Picture? Neither. The top prize went to a film that today is more or less forgotten: In the Heat of the Night. It’s a cinematically undistinguished, slowly paced police procedural that is not unlike a drawn-out episode of a TV series. In its 109 minutes, it has fewer twists and turns than the average episode of Law & Order. The only remotely noteworthy aspect of the film is that it has a message to declare: It’s against racial prejudice.

The black actor Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a brilliant Philadelphia homicide detective who happens to be visiting Mississippi just after the murder of an industrialist who, in his intent to hire blacks to work at his factory, posed a threat to white supremacy. A racist cop, spotting Tibbs sitting innocently in the train station, arrests him at gunpoint, then hauls him to the police station, where another racist officer, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), ludicrously tries to pin the murder on him without evidence. Yet Tibbs is such a shining exemplar of composure, courage, and intelligence that Gillespie asks him to assist in the investigation, begins to admire him, and gradually learns not to be a racist. He even becomes Tibbs’s protector against the crackers. Directed by Norman Jewison, the film is in essence a two-hour public service announcement: “Please don’t be racist. Good night, and safe travels.” The New Yorker critic Penelope Gilliatt yawned at the “primitive rah-rah story” and said the film had a “spurious air of concern about the afflictions of the real America.”

Hollywood, which then and for many years thereafter primarily saw racism from the point of view of white saviors, gave Steiger the Oscar for Best Actor instead of recognizing one of the year’s performances that would prove indelible in cinema history — those given by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, not to mention Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke the same year. (Poitier wasn’t even nominated.)

The ambiguous aspects that make The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde worthy of discussion and repay multiple viewings are completely absent from In the Heat of the Night: The film couldn’t be more on the nose. Like most message movies, it goes about its business with such single-minded determination that it fairly grinds away with self-righteousness. It’s like a dinner-party guest who has only one subject of conversation. There’s no need to view it again. In the most famous scene, a stereotypical plantation owner (whose character is defined before we even see him by a shot of a racist jockey statue out front) is fussing over his flowers in a greenhouse when he is visited by Gillespie and Tibbs. He reflects on his orchids in these terms: “It’s remarkable that of all the orchids in this place, you should prefer the epiphytics. I wonder if you know why?” he asks Tibbs. “Because like the nigra, they need care and feedin’ and cultivatin’, and that takes time.” After Tibbs insinuates that the plantation owner might know something about the murder, the latter slaps Tibbs — who shocks him by immediately returning the slap. The racist can’t believe it. “There was a time,” he mutters, “when I could have had you shot.” Times change.

The ambiguous aspects that make The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde worthy of discussion and repay multiple viewings are completely absent from In the Heat of the Night.

In the Heat of the Night is not what you’d call a subtle movie. There isn’t a lot to chew over here. Assuming you already know racism is wrong, there’s no compelling reason to watch it in the first place. It’s so obviously an inferior work of art to the best films of 1967 that its recognition by the Motion Picture Academy seems an undeniable example of proto-virtue-signaling. In its eagerness to advertise its moral rectitude, the Academy overlooked the monumental films and rewarded a minor one. From then on, the quality of a film had to be weighed against whatever Hollywood’s political urges of the moment were.

Fifty years later, the Academy has shed so much cultural authority that the Oscars are no longer able to guarantee even modest box-office success for the films it lauds. Its latest choice for Best Picture, Moonlight, hits the Amazon Prime streaming service on May 21, and the general public will get the opportunity to judge its merits in their living rooms.

The verdict will be, I think, disbelief that such a small and underwhelming film could be considered the year’s best offering by anyone. Moonlight is sensitively wrought, but it’s another grindingly obvious message movie completely lacking in subtext. In the film’s most cringe-inducing moment of didacticism, the gay, black, impoverished and abused young fellow Chyron asks, “What’s a faggot?” and is told by his wise older mentor, “A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad.”

Moonlight arrived at a moment of liberal obsession with “intersectionality,” or multiple-victim status, and so the polymorphously oppressed Chyron touched a nerve among Hollywood progressives. But sit-down-and-learn-your-lesson movies don’t age well. Fifty years from now — maybe five years from now, maybe five weeks from now — Moonlight will look like an embarrassingly obtuse choice for Hollywood’s highest honor.


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