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Discuss: 'In The Heat of The Night' & 'Crimson Tide' - 2 Different Slaps, 2 Different Men, 2 Different Responses?

by Tambay A. Obenson
July 1, 2014 10:50 AM
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Crimson Tide

With June now behind us, and July just welcoming us, Netflix's usual purge of older streaming titles has happened (rights expirations), with a new list of titles replacing them. Scrolling the list of those that become available on the streaming platform today, July 1, one that immediately caught my eye was "Crimson Tide" - a movie I haven't seen in ages, and one of Denzel Washington's best, in my not-so humble opinion.

It got my attention because it instantly reminded me of a debate we had on the old S&A site, many moons ago (when it was still a hobby, and relatively-unknown) - a debate I thought I'd revisit years later, if only because the site's readership has grown exponentially since then, and I'm curious to read even more reactions to the central argument.

In summary, at a Black cinema conference I attended that year on representation (2009), one of the panelists (Dr Todd Boyd) spoke to the power that black Hollywood stars have in controlling the portrayals of the characters they play on screen, and how that power seems to have almost gone into retrograde, despite the progression in racial acceptance/tolerance since the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. 

Specifically, Boyd compared Sidney Poitier’s immediate reaction to Mr Endicott’s slap, in the 1968 classic, "In The Heat of The Night," to, 27 years later, Denzel Washington’s response to Gene Hackman’s double slaps (although they were more like punches to the face), in 1995′s "Crimson Tide."

His point was that Washington, as a contemporary Hollywood movie star, with power, should have insisted, as Poitier did, that his character respond with the same instinctive reaction – a return slap/blow to Gene Hackman’s jaw – especially given the difference in the racial climates during which both films were produced and released. His argument suggested that Washington really had no excuse for allowing that scene to play out as it did, as a black Hollywood star with clout.

Naturally, some disagreed with Dr Boyd, stating that context was important in both instances; and I recall someone mentioning a code of conduct in the Navy, which is the milieu in which "Crimson Tide" takes place, stating that a lower-ranking officer (Denzel’s character) would not respond in real life, and would simply take the blows from the superior officer (Gene Hackman’s character).

And to that, a counter argument was made, asserting that there’s a difference between so-called real life and Hollywood movies, in that, Hollywood movies are essentially fantasy, and don’t necessarily strive to fully represent reality, as we’ve seen numerous times when Hollywood has taken liberties in studio-produced films, re-writing history, or the present; And so, certainly, the script could have been adjusted so that Denzel’s character indeed retaliated, if only because of pride and ego, and then face any legal consequences later… or at least, the character could have been written that way, because, it’s fantasy anyway, right? That was the other side of the argument some presented.

It was also suggested by others that the same could be said for Poitier – specifically, in talking about “realistic” representations of scenarios; would a black man in the 60s, in the south, slapping a white man, get off as easily as Tibbs does in that film? And if not, then, Poitier really was moving mountains by insisting his character return the slap, and thus Denzel, once again, really could have done the same.

It’s all debatable I suppose, hence this post.

We’ve discussed and debated ad naseam the, shall we say, testicular fortitude of Hollywood’s leading black male stars (and/or lack thereof), when it comes to making certain character decisions in the roles that they choose to play, and how they portray them. Dr Boyd’s presentation touched on that a little bit, and this came up as an aside. So if you hadn’t given much thought to this specific comparison of scenes he made a few years ago (and I can't say if he still feels the way he did back then) between both movies, with Poitier and Washington, think about it now, and share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Here are both scenes.

"In The Heat Of The Night":

And here’s the scene from "Crimson Tide." It helps if you’ve seen the whole movie already, for context. It’s probably the best film on the long list of actor/director collaborations between Denzel Washington and Tony Scott.

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  • Franklin | July 3, 2014 1:30 AMReply

    No one is checking out the fact that in these moments, these totally contrasting moments, the motivation for the slap is totally different. In "The Heat of the night," The initial slam was a power play to test his authority over Poitier's character. The reaction made sense because as a police officer, he had authority, not the white dude. In the other moment, Hackman's character was fearful and desperate. Not striking back made Washington's character even MORE POWERFUL, because he was controlled, calculating and knew he was right with the actual Navy on his side. As soon as didn't strike back, Washington's character won. So, Hackman's character slapped (punched) again. And he lost again. No strike back, as if to say "I'm letting you hit me because it does not matter. I'm right and violence will not change that." Very Powerful moment.

  • Claudia | July 2, 2014 12:24 PMReply

    Whenever I see a reference to the Poitier "slap" I am reminded of a long-gone TV movie about Noah's Ark in which Poitier's daughter, Sydney, was a co-star. As I watched the movie, I was startled by a totally gratuitous slap that was given the latter by the character's husband. The move was a full, frontal hit that was utterly unnecessary to the scene and the plot. I couldn't help but see it as a contemporary response to one of her father's iconic scenes.

  • Jacqueline Cohen | July 2, 2014 12:25 AMReply

    I just read a comment bellow, that white folks wouldn't have loved the movie (as much) if Denzel showed that much "power". I desagree. The secret of Denzels success between white people is exactly his characters power, besides his huge charm, of course. I am white and I like to see black men and women being treated as normal human beings, that is what they are. I love Denzel Washington and all his movies. He is the best actor in my opinion (not the best black actor) and he is a powerful man (not a powerful black man)

  • Jacqueline Cohen | July 1, 2014 11:42 PMReply

    I watched Crimson Tide recently, and when I saw that scene, I didn´t think Denzel´s character should have slapped back the captain, because he had such a control in every situation, in this one, he just showed superiority. He knew he was right. Capt. Ramsey lost his mind and he didn´t. I saw it as an honorable attitude by him.
    The other movie I didn´t watch, but it seems that the message was that Poitier´s character did not accept being humiliated. Another context, another situation.
    I watched only one Poitier´s movie - To Sir with love - I loved it. I watched more than 40 Denzel Washington´s movies. I can "guarantee" that he showed that black men were never inferior at all

  • Royce | July 1, 2014 5:35 PMReply

    Ol Skool;
    Dr Boyd is simple minded. Wasn't Crimson Tide the same movie where Denzel humiliated Quentin Tarantino on the set for his repeated use of the "N-word" in his scripts. If there is one black leading man unafraid to excercise his power, it's Denzel. He could have let Tarantino off the hook, but cost himself a working relationship with one of the hottest directors of his generation because he was "keeping it real".

    I'm not of the "turn the other cheek" doctrine at all. But there is a time and a place. Denzel is a multi-faceted actor precisely because he didn't allow himself to be pigeonholed. He's got plenty of roles where he gets to fight fire with fire and physicaly retaliate. Damn, about 80% of Denzel's roles in the last decade involve him shooting lots of white men. He's at it again in The Equalizer.

    My feeling is that Denzel wanted the scene to play out the way it did, because it was a good opportunity to show himself (or black men, if you like) as intellectually and morally superior (he can always shoot or hit white men in other movies, as he's done). If you watch Crimson Tide, Hackman spends pretty much the entire movie trying to goad and antagonise Denzel's character, to lose his cool. Hackman thinks he's smarter than Denzel and is desperate to manipulate an emotional, violent reaction from him. At first, it's with words (sly racist jabs about black and white Lippinzaner stallions), but when Hackman realises he can't get Denzel to lose his cool with verbal jabs, he resorts to hitting. Still Denzel doesn't bite. Hackman is almost trying to prove that he can get Denzel to lose control, and not once in the film does Denzel give Hackman what he wants.

    Hackman wants Denzel to hit him, and Denzel knows this. If he retaliates, he's given Hackman what he's wanted. The context of Sideny retaliating is completely different.

  • Ol' Skool | July 1, 2014 7:10 PM

    Well Royce, I have to give it up. You have a very compelling argument. That said, I will have to view the movie again because I am not -- totally -- buying your characterization of Hackman as a man obsessed with trying to get Denzel to lose his cool. In fact, it was business as usual for the most senior officer on the ship. Point being, I am sure Denzel's character had witnessed Hackman being a total di*k head ( goading and antagonizing and using sly racist jabs at most of his subordinates), so Denzel had seen that show on a daily basis. And, is it fair to say "Hackman thinks he's smarter than Denzel"? On the contrary, I believe Hackman is simply having a problem with a subordinate questioning his authority.

    Lastly, you said "My feeling is that Denzel wanted the scene to play out the way it did, because it was a good opportunity to show himself (or black men, if you like) as intellectually and morally superior".

    Okay... and I say, regardless of the many opportunities Denzel has had to kill scummy outlaws, this was a perfect opportunity to channel Malcolm X... "by any mean necessary... you have to teach some folks how to treat you. Save the good opportunity to show himself (or black men, if you like) as intellectually and morally superior, for castor oil movies like The Great Debaters.

  • Bread Free | July 1, 2014 4:16 PMReply

    Black actors should be allowed to play vulnerable without the black intellect calling them weak.

  • Up In The Balcony | July 1, 2014 12:48 PMReply

    ** Black Statler and his companion up in the balcony, Black Waldorf, had nodded off after excessively running their mouths on the Spike Lee debate. Today, Waldorf is awakened by Tambay walking right down his street. He nudges his partner in crime "wake up you old fool" to tell him his discovery**

    Waldorf: Hey Statler, did you know I was in the Navy?

    Statler: NO... and I don't care, I was in the Air Force.

    Waldorf: Oh, one of those.

    Statler: WHAT!?

    Waldorf: You know, one of those tit-less WAFS.

    Statler: WHAT!?

    Waldorf: Yeah, you know, well everybody knows Air Force dudes, unless you're a pilot, they don't fight anybody. So, generally you dudes are nothing more than clerks, kitchen help and paper shufflers, ala tit-less WAFS.

    Statler: Tit-less WAFS?!

    Waldorf: Yep, in essence you guys were nothing more than Women Air Force (WAFS) without titties.

    Statler: Man, fk U... suck my d*ck.

    Waldolf: See, that what I'm talkin about... that's a woman's job.

    **Staler is stuck like chuck as he tries to remove his foot from his mouth**

    Waldorf: Okay man, what did you do in the Air Force?

    Statler:: I... ahh... I worked in **mumblemumble**

    Waldorf: What, I can't hear you?

    Statler: I was a Personal Specialist.

    Waldorf: LOL!.... you WAS a tit-less WAF.

    Statler: Fu*k you man. Now tell me, what got you so riled up this morning?

    Waldorf: Well, I actually had a similar insitent as Denzel's character but our recourse was much different.

    Statler: Really? Knowing you, you probably cried and ran to your bunk.

    Waldorf: You got me fk up. I commence to whoopin' his ass.

    Statler: You kicked a superiors ass?

    Waldorf: You got that right and let me tell you the rest of the story.

    Statler: Don't tell me, they kicked your ass straight out of the Navy.

    Waldorf: Nope. Listen, I was working below deck, right below a hatch. I had tagged the hatch so no one could close it or enter my working area. It's a safety precaution. But this white dude, my superior, thought he was above the rules, so he told me to "get out of my way ni**er"

    Statler: WHAT!? What year was this?

    Waldorf: Actually it was about the same period as in the movie Crimson Tide. Anyway, I politely told the dude that the latch was tagged and I was doing inspections, so he could not enter. Then he said "I don't care about a goddamn tag, move out of my way ni**er"

    Statler: Did you move?

    Waldorf: Nope. But the dude stepped on my back and entered my work area.

    Statler: No he didn't?!

    Waldorf: Yes he did and that's when I started beating his ass. Fu*k a code of conduct, I had to show that SOB how to treat me.

    Statler: So that's why they kicked you out, you know, because you could have simply reported him for a safety violation but instead you took matters in your own hands?

    Waldorf: Are you listening, I didn't get kicked out. Listen, in short, during that time the military was flooded with serious racial conflicts aboard Navy vessels. So they took a stand... ZERO TOLERANCE. Whites and blacks were being held to strict rules in regards to racial issues. Consequently, the dude who stepped on my back and called me a ni**er was in double doo-doo.

    Statler: Double Doo-doo?

    Waldorf: Yep, he called me out of my name and he abused me by stepping on my back. See, an officer can scream and holler at you all they want, but physically attacking a subordinate is a no-no. Ultimately, his ass got discharged, not mine.

    Statler: So Denzel, in your opinion, could have stepped off in Gene Hackman's ass, huh?

    Waldorf: Yep, he could have. But, since we're talking about a movie, white folks wouldn't have loved the movie (as much) if Denzel showed that much "power".

    Statler: Okay, real quick, how does Sydney Poitier's position in "The Heat Of The Night" differ from Denzel's?

    Waldorf: Well, Tambay said, "would a black man in the 60s, in the south, slapping a white man, get off as easily as Tibbs does in that film?".... hummm...

    Statler: Don't just stand there looking stupid, answer the question.

    Waldorf: Well, it had already been established that Mr. Tibb was the new HNIC in town. And, he had the blessing and backing of the town's most powerful white woman. Plus, he had already punked Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor ) so he was good to go.

    Statler: Simple as that?

    Waldorf: Yep, in movies as with life, a black man can beat up a few white folks when they have the blessings of few powerful white folks.

    Statler: So in essence In The Heat Of The Night was essentially a white savior film?

    Waldorf: I'm not going there today. Go back to sleep.

  • No | July 1, 2014 11:41 AMReply

    Without fully seeing the film Crimson Tide, it it hard to read the hitting. Also, there are numerous men with guns drawn. Are they on Hackman's character's side? If so, that would seem to limit Washington's character's ability to respond in-kind.

    Also, as a junior officer Washington's character would not be allowed to strike a superior; that would be in subordination. However, on the other hand, a senior officer striking a junior officer would be abuse of power.

  • Walter Harris Gavin | July 1, 2014 12:05 PM

    Guns were drawn on both sides. Cmdr. Hunter could have just as easily responded in kind to his Capt.'s punch. The entire dynamic would have changed. And Hunter would have been saying to all concerned I'm within my right and not taking shit from nobody, even the United States Gov't.

  • Curtis | July 1, 2014 12:01 PM

    The guns drawn are on both sides because the staff had divided loyalties. But even with that said, firing a gun inside a submarine is just not a good idea so I don't think anyone would've taken a shot unless they were willing to die themselves as well. But it's all fiction so anything is possible really, which speaks to what makes sense and what doesn't.

  • Walter Harris Gavin | July 1, 2014 11:35 AMReply

    Less we forget that stories are told to and for an audience. The audience for In The Heat of the Night, was a "black" audience full of rage, righteous indignation, "a black an I'm proud," mentality. The film makers were tapping into that mindset. I remember sitting in the theater seeing that scene for the first time and the reaction was universal, cheering, hand clapping, a lot of "you go Sidney" comments. That wasn't Tibbs up there on the big screen. That was Super Sidney at his most powerful. In total command of his craft. The gem of that scene is Jasper Hairston, playing the butler, whose reaction says it all. No dialogue needed. "Yes, you damn right times had changed." Sidney was striking a blow for all black men in whatever capacity who've wanted to slap they're "white" employer, or any "white" authority figure who had any way in the least slighted them. Sidney with that slap was saying to all the world like the garbage workers in Memphis who walked off their jobs and carried signs "I Am A Man."
    Denzel who has always said that Sidney was his idol, couldn't bring himself to channel Mr. Tibbs. In Glory, admittedly a powerful scene when he let that one tear drip down his cheek at being whipped. So his reaction is that same in Crimson Tide, stoic defiance.
    Sidney fought fire with fire. Denzel kept his powder dry. Sidney wasn't afraid to vent his anger. It's a difference in generations. Where Jeremiah Wright's generation remains angry and wants to unleash righteous "black" rage. Obama keeps whatever anger he might feel under wraps.
    Different times. Different audiences. But my sense of what is required is what Grover Washington, Jr.'s homage to Dr. J extolled "... Let It Flow!"

  • Boykin | July 1, 2014 11:16 AMReply

    it's two different kinds of defiance.

    Poitier's slap was instinct, defiance based on respect.

    Washington's slap was intellectual, defiance based on accountability.

    both equally powerful statements.

  • Ol' Skool | July 1, 2014 4:25 PM

    @ Royce, slow your roll new skool, don't flip the script too soon.

    Listen, in the context of the referenced debate, Dr Boyd's argument, his argument is valid, and thus, far from ridiculous. That said, it appears you've missed the fondation of his argument. If so.... IT'S REWIND TIME:

    "[Mr.Boyd's] point was that Washington, as a contemporary Hollywood movie star, with power, should have insisted, as Poitier did, that his character respond with the same instinctive reaction – a return slap/blow to Gene Hackman’s jaw – especially given the difference in the racial climates during which both films were produced and released. His argument suggested that Washington really had no excuse for allowing that scene to play out as it did, as a black Hollywood star with clout."

    Now Royce, did you catch it? This argument is about the "power" of a black Hollywood star. In this case, the subtle, yet powerful message he can send to the black community.

    You're apparently in the crowd who believes in the "turn the other cheek" doctrine, as a tool to fight racism and oppression. Well, world history tells me power concedes nothing without a demand. And, that demand has always been in the form physical conflicts.

    Consequently, I'm riding with Dr. Boyd, Denzel should have slap the taste out of that white man's mouth.

  • Royce | July 1, 2014 3:15 PM

    It's a ridiculous argument being put forth, because the context of both situations is completely different.

    Nothing is at stake in In The Heat Of The Night, other than Poitier's pride. In Crimson Tide, Denzel is trying to prevent a nuclear war. He absolutely cannot lose control, under any circumstance, otherwise those he's trying to convince he's that he's right will doubt him. By not striking back Hackman, he essentially lets every man in the room know that he can keep his emotions in check and keep a cool head. Hackman ends up looking like the the emotional hothead who can't be relied upon to make the decision that may prevent or start a nuclear holocaust. Denzel actually wins the room by not striking back.

    Denzel had already played a bunch of hotheaded angry, defiant black men at that point in his career. Him slapping Hackman would have proved nothing....this is a guy who already played Malcolm X, the walking nightmare of white people. Crimson Tide was Denzel at his intellectual best. The man who can keep his cool under the most trying of circumstances. It's not a big surprise that when Obama was running for president, a constant comparison was made to Crimson Tide in the media. Obama was seen as Denzel's character, completely unflappable, and cool under pressure. The sort of man you want to lead the country. And John McCain was portrayed as Hackman's character...a trigger happy hothead who couldn't be trusted to have his finger at the button of America's nuclear arsenal. You could say that Denzel's performance was the type of performance that allowed white Americans to see a black man as a potential President of the United States.

    Denzel can see the big picture in his roles and decisions. This is why he's not Samuel L. Jackson.

  • Walter Harris Gavin | July 1, 2014 11:47 AM

    Poitier's response is cathartic. Washington's response leaves the audience flat. No accountability at all. We all make choices. Washington's choice was to take it. Poitier's was not to take any shit any more. Regardless. In the armed forces a superior officer can not strike a subordinate. Patton was demoted for just such an offense during WWII.

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