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Fowler’s Flix 04.03.19: Criterion’s Cultural Milestones

United Artists / Criterion Collection
Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger star in the explosive 1967 cop drama "In the Heat of the Night."
Fertile Ground Compost Service
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The Criterion Collection, many times, have gone above and beyond in their releases and reissues, often overlooking the stereotypical blockbusters for the honest works of art that will truly stand the test of time, usually because they have earned and maintained status as a cultural milestone, probably the hardest level of classic for a film to reach.

They have recently released two such films, both transcendent in their filmmaking, storytelling and importance in American film.

The first film in this week’s double-feature is the Academy Award-winning potboiler In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier at his white-man smacking best. Poitier stars as a Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs—but you can call him Mr. Tibbs—who ends up in the middle of a murder investigation in the racial hair-trigger that is Sparta, Mississippi.

As someone who grew up in a mostly racist small-town like I did, Rod Steiger does a more than affable job as the bigoted police chief who is forced to realize he needs Tibbs if he’s going to crack this case. It actually brings back memories, most not that great.

Even more than the guts this film had to put an established actor like Poitier in the middle of this Southern powder-keg was the sheer tenacity both director Norman Jewison and he had to make Tibbs an absolutely formidable man on-screen that, quite frankly, don’t take shit from absolutely anyone—it’s a performance that turned Poitier into a screen-legend.

While most people probably remember the long-running NBC television series (1988-95) more than this 1967 flick these days, this Criterion reissue of this film is a true cinematic landmark—no white saviors here, folks—that has very rarely been matched in film over the past fifty years.

The director of our second feature, Charles Burnett, has had a strange career. As one of the founders of the Black Independent Movement of the 70s that came out of UCLA, his first picture was his thesis film, Killer of Sheep. Having directed only a few features since then, perhaps his zenith as an artist was with the challenging 1990 film To Sleep with Anger starring Danny Glover as drifter Harry, a guest from the Deep South that winds up on his South Central relatives’ doorstep.

While at first Harry is a welcome member of the tribe, soon enough he overstays his welcome, developing serious problems with and for every family member he comes in contact with. With a devilish glint in his eyes, Glover treats Harry as a man with darkness underneath his smile, always playing with his foreboding knife as he leads fractured family members astray.

Like a visualized blues songs, there is no happy ending for anyone is this morality—or lack thereof—tale.

With a deep respect for the rites and rituals of not only the traditional family circle, but that of a transplanted Southern family trying to make in the modern-day world, it’s an interesting dichotomy that works frustratingly beautifully.

Next week: Dog-umentaries!

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About the Author

Louis Fowler

Güicho. Gadfly. Chicano. Choctaw. Cristero. Freelancer. Leftist. Activist. Vilified. PKD....

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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