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Film in American Popular CultureVisit Press Americana
THE COLOR LINE AND THE SILVER SCREEN:
SIDNEY POITIER, LIBERAL HOLLYWOOD, AND RACIAL INTEGRATION IN
STANLEY KRAMER'S THE DEFIANT ONES AND
NORMAN JEWISON'S IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT

No one resembling him, or anyone resembling any of the Scottsboro Boys, nor anyone resembling my father, has yet made an appearance on the American cinema scene.
— James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work

I accuse Hollywood of being the most anti-Negro influence in this nation in the twentieth century.
— John Oliver Killens, White Racism


Among his many roles, Sidney Poitier was never entirely at ease as black America’s box office superstar. Yet Poitier’s early life on Cat Island was like that of a lot of poor blacks in America. The family struggled to survive without the conveniences of wealth, but managed to make do through blue-collar labor. When economic depression forced the family to relocate to Nassau, Poitier sought refuge in film. As an introduction of sorts to the world beyond the islands, film took the place of a liberal arts education. The more Poitier learned about the world, the more he realized that “he” was missing from it — that people who looked like him were absent from the screen. Exclaiming: “[I] very rarely saw a Negro man when I was looking for myself,” Poitier concluded that Hollywood was for the most part skeptical about removing the color line on the silver screen. Despite how discouraging this may have been, Poitier never stopped projecting himself upon the world of the cinema. After a few stints in the theater, Poitier set out for Hollywood.

This essay will examine Poitier’s role in liberal Hollywood’s on-screen fight for civil rights in post World War II America. Employing a methodology that blends film criticism with new historicism, I will offer readings of two popular Poitier films of the Cold War era that emphasize the social worth of racial integration: Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958), and Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967). By situating Poitier in what is commonly referred to as the “biracial buddy film” — liberal Hollywood’s on-screen tactic of juxtaposing a black male actor alongside a white one to showcase the possibility of interracial friendship — we can measure the degree to which liberal Hollywood attempted to fight racism and fully incorporate African-Americans into the national scene. Because Poitier in many of his on-screen performances of the era embodies the Cold War rhetoric of containment — the ideal blend of proper etiquette and restrained or suppressed machismo — he signifies the possibilities of U.S. universalism (the idea that democracy can work in that it provides a space for blacks and various members of the “Other” to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and enter the mainstream). Acknowledging the fact that the mainstream is for the most part an articulation of white experience, this essay will question whether or not these films successfully debunk the myths of black masculinity in relationship to the mystique of white womanhood and middle-class identity. Because the biracial buddy film begs us to believe that a black man and a white man can befriend one another in the midst of racial difference, I want to suggest that these on-screen relationships are governed by the over-arching presence of whiteness and the degree to which black men can perform the rituals of whiteness. Performing whiteness becomes an essential component in Hollywood’s cinematic effort to eradicate the color line during the Cold War. In discussing the role of whiteness, I seek to expose the pseudo-integrationist impulse behind Hollywood’s civil rights.

As Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner point out in Radical Hollywood, Hollywood had taken on the problem of the color line long before 1958. According to Buhle and Wagner shortly after its formation in 1942, the Office of War Information (OWI) had “a full agenda of Hollywood priorities to build victory spirit on the home front, including the improvement of race relations.” The OWI-NAACP-Hollywood alliance was constructed upon the idea that “crisis bred reassertions and enactments” that could be projected upon the silver screen. At the insistence of Walter White and the NAACP, Hollywood responded with a series of “problem films” that tackled racism. From 1946 to 1950, problem films “flourished” primarily for two reasons: 1) they dramatized what Donald Bogle describes as “audience expectations and demands, their quirks, their insecurities, and their guilt feelings”; 2) they provided a quick fix for the box office slump. By the late forties, ticket sales had declined drastically as more Americans relied upon network television for entertainment. In 1946 weekly theatre attendance was around eighty-two million people. In 1950 it had dropped to only thirty-six million. The only advantage the studio had over television was its ability to treat heavier themes and subjects, and this is exactly what it did. Poitier, who had left the stage for more money, could not have come to Hollywood at a better time. His strong on-screen presence and versatility made him a favorite, indeed Hollywood’s favorite “Negro” actor.

But this was a title that Poitier found painfully limiting. In 1950 he told Archer Winsten that the New Hollywood would “integrate Negroes into the American scene, not as Negroes, but as persons.” Clearly Poitier found Hollywood’s interest in the Negro selfish; blacks were often portrayed as the “problem” in many of the so-called problem films of the 1940s, as Ed Guerrero explains in Framing Blackness. Rarely cast as complex characters, blacks were used to dramatize disparaging stereotypes and tropes. Many black activists and liberal-minded Hollywood figures shared Poitier’s criticism. Director/producer Stanley Kramer was also appalled with racism in Hollywood, so he decided to make a movie about it. When Kramer presented Poitier with the part of Noah Cullen in The Defiant Ones, Poitier readily agreed to push the film’s political message: the social worth of racial integration both on and off the screen.

After The Defiant Ones was released, Kramer described his intent behind the film as his desire “to tell the glory of the sacrifice for a man.” What is troubling about this statement is that Kramer does not clearly identify who makes the sacrifice. Surely, it could not be Joker (Tony Curtis) who is hostile towards Cullen throughout the film, and attempts to abandon him with the assistance of his white lover. Joker who has known his lover all of one night has already forgotten about the hardships that he has endured with Cullen’s assistance. Nevertheless, Cullen jumps off a moving train to stay with Joker. So just who makes the so-called sacrifice? I suppose that an argument could be made in favor of Joker’s relinquishment of his blue-eyed blonde as a sacrifice of sorts, but how silly and shallow would it be to do so when the fact of the matter is that Joker’s feat cannot even compare to Cullen’s? After all, when Cullen abandons the train he gives up a chance at freedom. But just what does Joker give up when he decides to return to Cullen? A white woman who is all too eager to abandon her son? Why even put a woman into a film that is ultimately about the love that can develop between a black and a white man? Why have one of the men — the white one — become sexually entangled with her?

Perhaps it is the threat that black masculinity poses to both white manhood and womanhood. This explains why Joker and the husbandless woman make love. It is not so much an act of lovemaking as it is an affirmation of domesticity. Joker makes love to the white woman not because he falls in love with her, but because she brings to mind the pleasantries and conveniences of the marital bond, the bond between a white man and woman. Joker’s sexual relationship with her, albeit one night, is a refutation of what his “bond” to Cullen represents — male desire outside of the domestic space. Consider the exchange that takes place earlier in the film where Cullen and Joker are attempting to break the chain that ties them together. Joker, who suggests that the two go south, is angered by Cullen’s dissatisfaction. Angrily he shouts, “Get off my back! I ain’t married to you.” Cullen knowingly replies: “You’re married to me alright, now here’s the ring,” indicating the chain, “but I ain’t going south.”

This scene would seem to suggest that there is an underlying fear, on Joker’s part, of what the physical closeness to another male body, a black one, represents. Later on, inside the home of the husbandless woman, this fear is exposed when Joker pulls Cullen toward the hearth to break the chain. Is it a mere coincidence that their “bond” is broken upon the hearth? Not if you acknowledge the fact that the hearth symbolizes home, warmth, and domestic order. However, this is not to say that Joker desires a domestic union with the husbandless woman. He only affirms it because he is afraid of what lies on the other side of it, an emotional attachment to Cullen. And just where is Cullen while Joker is making love to the husbandless woman? He is stretched out across the kitchen table, asleep, with Billy’s rifle under his arms — that is of course until the woman takes it away from him.

As Ed Guerrero suggests in The Black Image in Protective Custody, this scene should be read as a “strategy of containment.” Cullen, an armed black man, poses a threat to white domesticity even while he is sleeping. Therefore, the white woman must “strip” Cullen of his masculinity (by taking the rifle away) to reduce him to the level of a child, like her own who is also asleep in the next room. Aside from believing that Cullen is dangerous, the woman also views him as an obstacle in her plan to run away with Joker. This is why she sends Cullen to the swamp, hoping that he will die. But what she does not anticipate is Joker’s trouble with this. Believing that her feminine wiles will win out, the woman never suspects that Joker’s attachment to Cullen is stronger than what brings them together for one night. And when she is forced to confront the truth about American masculinity, she is in utter dismay.

Andrea Levine spells out exactly what the truth about American masculinity signifies for white women. According to her, it is degraded value. Because black and white men can come together in the absence of white women, white womanhood loses its social worth. Levine argues that historically it was the white woman who was the “anchor of racist ideology.” Her very presence positioned her as something to be guarded against black men. In the historical racial hierarchy, black men were described as savage in a large part due to the social worth of white womanhood. Often celebrated as the epitome of beauty, Levine argues that white women were largely responsible for many of the violent crimes committed against black men. In “Sidney Poitier’s Civil Rights: Rewriting the Mystique of White Womanhood in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night,” Levine summarizes the history of black-white male relationships and the role white women played in constructing it:

Resting on the presumption that white women were the fragile property of their white fathers, husbands, and brothers, the mystique of white womanhood ostensibly motivated thousands of lynchings. White female sexuality in the South thus always functioned as a means by which white men could regulate their relationships with black men.

Because the presence of white women has historically been responsible for hostile relationships between black and white men, once gone, men can befriend one another through gender.

As Robyn Wiegman argues, biracial buddy movies do not work because white liberal Hollywood’s dreams of racial integration are materialized, nor because of the socio-political punch of their themes, but for no other reason than that they feature a pairing whose relationship is not based upon “possessing” the white woman. Beth McCoy enhances this argument exclaiming that the “intramasculine” differences arrived at by class and race are replaced “by the prevailing framework of gender” only after the white woman is removed from the narrative. Her absence allows the black man to reclaim his masculinity. As McCoy explains, the black man has been feminized by the social power of the white man, and the removal of the white woman allows the black man to enter a “putatively aracial fraternity.” In her absence, men are able to identify with one another through gender because sex with her is not an option. Once this bond is established, it cannot be broken even by her. This is because the transcendence of racial difference can only occur after the threat of white femininity is discarded. At the end of The Defiant Ones this is why Joker returns to Cullen. After he has already “conquered” her sexuality by bedding her, Joker pushes the white woman away declaring: “Lady, I ain’t got time.” Though she coaxes him and he quickly gives in to her charms, he does not do so without expressing his reservation. Ultimately, he leaves her to go rescue his buddy in the swamp.

Despite the film’s good intentions, The Defiant Ones raises questions that put its liberalism in peril. In terms of its portrayal of a black convict, the film does not stray away from unfavorable stereotypes. Within the first five minutes of the film’s opening, we see Cullen singing cheerfully in chains like a dutiful slave perfectly content in his captivity. We also see this unwavering fidelity during a scene in which Cullen, having made it successfully onto the freight car, jumps off to be with Joker. Of course it has to be Cullen who makes it on board the moving train; everyone knows “how fast Negroes run.” But if underneath all of this there lies a greater good, does it really matter what it is? How can we champion Hollywood’s endorsement of “integration” in films like The Defiant Ones when we see no other black besides Poitier? Surely this is not Hollywood’s understanding of racial integration, the insertion of one black man in an all white world, or is it?

In “The Black Image in Protective Custody,” Guerrero discusses the common industry practice of placing black actors in films where there are isolated from other blacks. The black actor, “surrounded and appropriated by a White context” becomes the sole representative of blackness in the “protective custody” of a white male lead. Guerrero believes that the containment of the black image in film is Hollywood’s internalization of the racial dialogue that goes on beyond the screen. As he sees it, Hollywood does not seek to include blacks because it values their cultural experience, but by including at least “one” they can appear liberal without compromising the social hierarchy. Guerrero’s claims provide a valuable context within which Poitier’s performances in films such as The Defiant Ones and In the Heat of the Night might be read. In both films, Poitier is placed in the “protective custody” of the white male lead who must overcome his bigotry so that he can identify with a black male. As Cynthia J. Fuchs points out, in biracial buddy films, both men, despite their differences, desire to identify with one another.

In In the Heat of the Night, however, the possibilities for male identification are undercut by class and racial differences. Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), a successful Philadelphia detective, and Gillespie (Rod Steiger), the rough, racist, gum-chewing Sheriff of Sparta, Mississippi must overcome their prejudices to solve a murder. While the two can hardly be called friends they do reach an impasse of sorts at the end of the film — proving that black and white men can overcome their differences and work together. Despite the film’s liberal message, it nevertheless features the containment of the black male body. But unlike earlier Hollywood films, In the Heat of the Night does not seek to make a joke about black male identity. In fact, the film challenges many harmful assumptions about black men by reversing what Christopher Ames calls “the conventional polarity of civilization and savagery.” Because the film challenges society’s stereotypical conventions, it passes as progressive and is, therefore, celebrated as a milestone on the road to equality in the liberal community. But what happens when white people see a film like In the Heat of the Night and their point of identification is reversed? Instead of the middle class white man educated and polished they get Poitier, highly intelligent, well dressed, and black? What happens to mainstream audiences’ expectations when it is the white man who is coarse and unsophisticated?

According to Guerrero, their expectations are met in the representation of the black character in the protective custody of the white actor. In this sense, the film does not challenge society’s conventions by portraying blacks in a positive light. Rather, those expectations are met by the black actor who “conforms” to mainstream society’s ideas of what black people should be like, which is ultimately white like them. Even though the white man does not satisfy mainstream audiences’ sensibilities in terms of class, he is only there because of the point of identification provided by his white skin. As Guerrero suggests, Hollywood understands the expectations of mainstream America even better than those who comprise it. Hollywood understands that mainstream Americans needs to see those expectations met on screen. More often than not, those expectations are the reflections of their own experiences. Richard Dyer best expresses this when he writes that “mainstream cinema is predominantly an articulation of white experience.” Knowing that this is the bottom line, Hollywood only casts black male leads when it can override their on screen performances with a white actor.

Guerrero argues that it is because white audiences demand a white point of identification that white actors are placed alongside black actors in film. He believes mainstream audiences do not entirely feel at ease with having a black actor on screen, alone. And neither would they feel comfortable with a movie with too many black characters, and too little white ones. Perhaps Robert Townsend, black producer and filmmaker, best expresses this when he argues: “Hollywood is afraid that if you have more than one black person in a movie you have a black movie.” And considering that blacks make up less than fifteen percent of the population, why would anyone who is not black want to see a black film? But of course this is not acceptable to say, not aloud anyhow. Yet it is said nonetheless in films like In the Heat of the Night.

Because Hollywood wants to appear liberal, it creates a character like Virgil Tibbs. Moreover, it creates an unbelievable plot that begs us to believe that a successful black man would stay in a town like Sparta longer than the few minutes it might take to board another train. Why does Virgil stay? Aside from the realities of the narrative (his boss demands that he stay), he must stay so that he can change the attitudes and beliefs of the people around him. This is a high-minded objective if ever there was one. Regardless of Virgil’s talents for detective work, he still both treated and viewed as a black man. In terms of the movie’s treatment of him, this means that he is something to be contained and feared.

Consider the scene where we first see Virgil. He is sitting on a bench at the station quietly awaiting his train. The chief, a not too bright voyeur, spots him and approaches him suspiciously. The first words the deputy speaks to Virgil are: “On your feet, boy . . . Now!” Surprised by this type of language, Virgil rises only after the deputy pulls out his gun. Virgil, facing the wall with a gun to his back, listens as the chief tells him that there is a police car out front and that he wants him to “plant” himself in it “like a good boy.” In the next scene, Virgil is at the station like a prisoner, at least that is what one of the officers calls him. For the racist officers of Sparta, black skin is an automatic indicator of guilt. This marker is what makes it so hard for Gillespie to believe that Virgil is a police officer, and makes more money than him too. Not until Virgil’s credentials are authenticated by his boss does Gillespie take him seriously. Nevertheless, he is threatened by Virgil’s expertise and what it means for his masculinity. This explains why Gillespie continuously calls him “boy,” or “Virgil,” rather than “Mr. Tibbs.”

Andrea Levine suggests that the relationship between Gillespie and Virgil acts to contain Virgil’s masculinity by positioning Gillespie as a father figure of sorts over the stubborn Virgil. There is an exchange between the two in which Gillespie tells Virgil that “he’d like to ‘horsewhip’ him.” Virgil, who has overlooked the racial implications of this comment, passively responds with, “My father used to say that . . . He did a few times, too.” In this scene, Gillespie acts as a substitute for Virgil’s late father. But this is not necessarily indicative of fraternal bonding. It is more representative of a father-son relationship that operates on an established hierarchy of power. There is also the scene that takes place in Gillespie’s office where the late Mr. Corber’s wife is present, pleading for the detectives to solve the case. When Virgil’s intelligence and sense of self-worth appears too self-assured, Gillespie orders his men to take Virgil down to a jail cell to be locked up with a juvenile delinquent. Rather than treat Virgil with the respect of a man, Gillespie punishes him like a boy who has overstepped his boundaries and puts him on “time-out” with another bad little boy. Yet what makes Virgil’s outburst anymore threatening than it was before? Earlier when Gillespie asks Virgil to take a look at the dead body, Virgil rather loudly shouts, “Take a look at it yourself!” Is it the presence of Mrs. Corber, a white woman that makes Virgil’s outburst inappropriate? Is it too far fetched to suggest that Gillespie feels threatened by Mrs. Corber’s fondness for Virgil? After all, she is the one who demands that Virgil stay on the case, threatening to take her late husbands business elsewhere if they should dispose of him. Now this is not to say that Mrs. Corber has any sexual interest in Virgil, but the implication is that she feels more confident about his abilities as a detective than the other men in Sparta. She knows that as a woman, a white woman for that matter, that by evoking the presence and power of another white man, her husband, that she can enter the masculine world and position herself in such a way to endorse Virgil’s male credentials.

What about the town’s reaction to Virgil? Despite his professionalism, they still treat him like an unintelligible boy. After Virgil asserts himself by slapping Mr. Endicott, a wealthy white cotton producer who seems to find it necessary to remind Virgil: “There was a time when I could have had you shot”—Gillespie demands that Virgil return to Philadelphia. Perhaps it is because he genuinely fears for Virgil’s life. But underneath his growing respect for Virgil, he is still nevertheless intimidated by the bold articulation of his masculinity. Consider the scene that follows, where Virgil, cornered by several white high school boys, attempts to fight them off one by one. Once Gillespie appears Virgil, almost embarrassed by his presence, quickly abandons the scene. But Gillespie on the other hand seems to feel empowered by having to save Virgil. Forcefully, he tells the boys to, “Get out of here,” threatening them with violence. What is troubling about this scene is that Virgil’s power is silenced, or overshadowed by Gillespie’s intervention. It means nothing that as a black man he has slapped a rude, racist old white man who he believes to be guilty of the crime, or that he has managed to survive for seconds in the presence of the armed white boys who want to kill him. Neither does it seem to matter that he solves the case. In the end, Virgil Tibbs is just another Negro who has gotten to be too big for his britches and must go home.

But not before the truth about the so-called precious femininity of white womanhood is exposed. The investigation of Dolores Purdy and her sexual behavior exposes the degree of racism that is involved in defending her honor. This point is best expressed in Gillespie’s office when Purdy and her brother are attempting to convince the Sheriff that her pregnancy is a result of a rape-like seduction, rather than the freedom she takes with her sexuality. When Purdy’s brother wants Virgil to leave the room — to salvage the remnants of her honor — he is angered by the Sheriff’s decision to keep Virgil present. Because the presence of white womanhood introduces the racialized hierarchy of male masculinity, Purdy’s brother is deeply offended by the Sheriff’s endorsement of Virgil’s male credentials. By granting Virgil the right to stay in the room, the Sheriff places him on an equal footing to the other white men in the room. But Virgil is only allowed to stay because Gillespie has authorized his masculinity. Ultimately, the truth about Dolores Purdy is revealed — the father of her child in none other than Ralph, and her brother is shot in the impending chaos.

The resolution of In the Heat of the Night, which does not really resolve anything in terms of its treatment of black-white relations, nevertheless begs the question: Why Poitier? According to Levine, Poitier’s success can be attributed to “the consistent nobility, altruism, and pacifism of the characters he played” and its distance from what Donald Bogle calls “ghetto cultural baggage.” What this means is that Poitier was the preferred black actor by white America because his characters effectively moved in the white world without demanding recognition of their own. In “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So,” Clifford Mason argues that Poitier’s characters never retreat into their own black communities, but live in “the white world . . . helping the white man solve the white man’s problem.” In a similar vein, we can view Poitier’s figurative “passing” in relationship to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s claim that: “One must give up all claims of ethnicity to be properly white.” In this respect, we can conclude that since Poitier was for the most part detached from the black cinematic community, he was widely accepted by mainstream America because he fit their ideas of what black men should be like — white like them. No other scene in the movie articulates this assimilationist bent better than the final scene at the station where Virgil and Gillespie shake hands. (Arguably, they do so because Gillespie has accepted Virgil as his intellectual superior, giving him the status of a white man.) But if we read this gesture as James Baldwin does in The Devil Finds Work, this “obligatory, fade-out kiss” becomes an act of reconciliation. The handshake is supposed to convince us that the men have erased all of their prejudices and have reached a new understanding of one another. Yet what Gillespie’s and Virgil’s parting really represents is their mutual acceptance of their proper positions on either side of the color line. Although the men have developed a newfangled respect for one another, the film’s ending ironically invokes the ideology behind the “separate, but equal” campaign. Though the men learn how to get along, they acknowledge the fact that they cannot work together peacefully in Sparta. It is with this in mind that Gillespie tells Virgil to “take care now, you hear,” and the two part ways. Despite Jewison’s efforts to endorse racial integration on screen, In the Heat of the Night fails to properly depict social integration amongst blacks and whites. Instead, the film demonstrates that the only way a black man can change the low opinions others might hold of him is to silence all markers of difference in order to more fully embrace the whiteness that surrounds him.

January 2007

From guest contributor Melissa Daniels

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