MAXWELL:  “Heat’ offered a healing message

5/21/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As an old-fashioned integrationist, I regret that In the Heat of the Night has been canceled. The curtain fell last Tuesday, ending one of the warmest, most substantive shows in television history. When NBC introduced Heat in March 1988, critics predicted it would have a short run.

Some of the show’s problems, they said, were its Southern setting, its hayseed characters, its formulaic plots involving racial conflict. Another problem was that viewers would not accept Carroll O’Connor, the working-class paterfamilias of Archie Bunker fame, as the police chief of the small town of Sparta, Miss. Still another concern was that the series was based on a movie, and conventional wisdom was that such shows rarely succeed.

But while the critics were being, well, critics, millions of Americans in real life, like me, were growing fond of O’Connor as the grandfatherly and wise Bill Gillespie. At the same time, Howard Rollins was gaining admirers as Virgil Tibbs, Gillespie’s black chief of detectives.

The initial relationship between Gillespie _ a Southern white one step removed from being a full-fledged racist, and Tibbs, the Sparta-born black who had returned from Philadelphia trained in big-city investigative methods _ immediately pulled me into this fictional world. It reflected a reality I know all too well.

A native Southerner, who occasionally travels outside the region, I have known many white men like Gillespie, essentially good people who must transcend the sins of their environment. And I have been in Tibbs’ shoes: better trained than my white male bosses.

During Heat’s first season, Gillespie and Tibbs _ with racism just below the surface _ learn to respect each other as professionals. Gradually, they became close friends.

Such changes, the acquiring of new, positive views of other humans, gave the show most of its quality and its power to cultivate its loyal following. While Gillespie’s transformation was necessary, that of Deputy Bubba Skinner, played by Alan Autry, is more dramatic and somewhat more satisfying for viewers. At first, Bubba despises blacks, especially males. But he, too, confronts his feelings, overcomes them and emerges as a gutsy proponent of racial equality.

These changes in human conduct are important to me, for they show white and black men not only coexisting but also working as allies in the war against human cruelty and racial discrimination. This fictional alliance interests me also because, even though the real-life relationship between the groups usually has been one of hatred and violence, many white and black men in this region have developed close bonds.

Heat gave the rest of the country another glimpse into the world below the Mason-Dixon line. Yes, Sparta has citizens who resemble Hollywood caricatures such as Gomer and Goober Pyle, Jethro Clampett and Eb Dawson. But this small Mississippi town represents the New South, a place where intelligent, hard-working whites and blacks earnestly try to live together harmoniously.

Sparta has its Faulknerian side, the ancestral pathologies, the generational decadence and the sin-ladened blood that divide people. Viewers remain aware of these elements and often feel that the past will obliterate the present. The universality of the show’s themes and plots, however, dispels the fear, pulling the human conflict in each episode toward amicable resolution.

But nothing in the series plowed more new ground or inspired more interest and controversy than Gillespie’s love affair with and 1994 marriage to black city councilwoman Harriet DeLong, played by Denise Nicholas.

Americans are accustomed to seeing black men and white women together romantically. But seldom do we see white men with black women. As with every other aspect of Heat, executive producer O’Connor kept this unique interracial union dignified.

“We play it the way people are in life,” he said, explaining that the emphasis is on the emotional, not the physical, dimension of the relationship. On a more practical level, he said, “I don’t like to go into the heavy stuff, because I think it’s silly for an old man like me to be a great lover. Although we do, as they say, what comes natural.”

And what is natural in black-white relations? What is Heat’s message? “It shows that despite all of our differences, we can find a common ground as human beings and work and play together,” O’Connor said.

For me, the cruelest irony is that the series _ a healing experience _ was canceled at the very time when the nation needs the show’s hopeful message the most. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, with the proliferation of racism on talk radio and on the Internet and with the Christian Coalition’s push for a theocracy that excludes selected groups, we need a force, even a fictional one, that encourages both broad and specific understanding among people.

In the Heat of the Night, which received several NAACP Image Awards for attempting to bring whites and blacks together, was such a force. It showed us our potential. It demonstrated that we can get along. Fortunately, it can be seen in syndication.

Try the show. Its integrationist message is food for the soul.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.

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