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Before the President There Was Mr. Tibbs

Since the debut of the penny press in the 1800s, the media have made hundreds of millions in profits from shaming blacks. Black organizations have been complaining about stereotypical depictions for over one hundred years or more. The NAACP conducted a vigorous campaign against “The Birth Of A Nation,” which, in comparison to the kind of films and television series that black actors appear in today, seems mild. And even when

such productions are saluted for their diversity, a word that should be retired to where ever words that have lost their substance go, the productions are often directed produced and written by men who have never been subjected to the kind of racial profiling to which blacks are subjected every day.

Occasionally, a white producer, in this case, Norman Jewison, gets it right. While liberal Hollywood has released films like “Amistad” and “ To Kill A Mockingbird,” in which white saviors speak on behalf of blacks (even though the “slaves” on the actual Amistad could read and write Arabic), in “In the Heat of the Night” a well-groomed and sharp black intellectual speaks for himself to the amazement of those who’ve been conditioned to believe that blacks don’t have the “necessities” to exercise judgment and talk back, use big words and dress” like a white man.” Hollywood coddles the white box office with black sidekicks who engage in buffoonish antics as the white male lead engages in serious business. In “In the Heat of The Night,” Sheriff Gillespie played by Rod Steiger, behaves as Mr.Tibbs’s sidekick. During the film, Portier violates southern taboos by making physical contact with a white woman, Mrs. Colbert, played by Lee Grant, the wife of a slain factory builder, and listens in as a sixteen-year-old white girl gives a sexually explicit testimony about her having sex with a white man. Her brother objects. How these scenes got past the southern censors, who still have a veto over how race is treated in film, is worthy of a book in itself.

Some of the issues that are in the news are addressed in this film, which was made in 1967 and based upon John Ball’s novel, published fifty years ago and now being released by Penguin in an anniversary edition.

While scores of television and film police shows could have been script written by Patrick Lynch, president of New York’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the police shown in “In the Heat of the Night” are the kind of police about whom blacks and Hispanics complain. When a murder suspect is brought to the station, the police hint that they’ll brutalize him until he confesses.

We first encounter Tibbs when he is wrongly arrested for the murder of a Colbert, who was going to build a factory in the Mississippi town. As in the case of Sandra Bland, who was found hanging in her cell, the arresting officer doesn’t tell him what he’s being arrested for. When Tibbs informs the sheriff that he is a Homicide detective and reveals his salary, the white men are offended that he is making more money than they, but even with his background, and education he is treated with contempt even by a drifter who is arrested for the murder.

When Tibbs is arrested for withholding evidence, the drifter is upset when the sheriff puts Tibbs in the same cell. A sinister half-wit, the actual killer, refuses to serve him a meal in the diner where he works. But the best line about racism in the criminal justice system occurs when Tibbs threatens a black abortionist played by Beah Richards, with arrest. He says speaking of her possible sentencing, There is white time and colored time and the worst time is colored time.”

Sidney Portier is often criticized for playing a passive goody-goody Negro in the film. But in this film, he shows the courage to the point of recklessness, shows his contempt for his inferiors with stony glares, and mocking sneers. In one scene in which a powerful man, Colbert’s rival Endicott, played by Larry Gates, is situated in a greenhouse located on a plantation setting where blacks are picking Endicott’s cotton. The main house includes Greek columns. Endicott, the owner, makes a remark about flowers that need to be taken care of like “Nigras,” which could be a line included in the speech of some of the Republican presidential candidates.

When Tibbs questions him about the murder of his rival, Endicott slaps him. Tibbs slaps him back. Reacting to a black man slapping a powerful white man in Mississippi, the expression on Endicott’s black butler’s face is the scene-stealer.

I had lunch with an influential New York editor in September. Somehow the conversation got around to the Jupiter mission. I informed him that a black woman scientist helped to direct the mission.

He said that he hadn’t heard this. This is because the media including film have presented a one-sided depiction of black life. That’s why millions of whites are still bewildered and frustrated, angry and hurt that a black man is in the white house. Clean shaven. Wearing white men’s clothes. Capable of using big words. Mr. Tibbs was there first.

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Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

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