Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: there is nothing - NOTHING - original about the notion of 2 Guns, which pairs two prickly law enforcement officers, one black and one white, to solve a crime even as they can barely function with each other's idiosyncrasies. A most noble and ancient narrative, though sometimes the bit where one is black and one is white is played for somewhat different emphasis.

People are born and they die, nations fall, worlds change, and yet one thing that has always been and will always be true is that white people can't make good message movies about racism. Reductively and archly, we might suggest that this is because white people, by definition, can't have firsthand knowledge of the sort of institutional racism that's so ingrained in America that even a mixed-race President of the United States has to deal with people clucking at him for daring to speak about the experience of males with dark brown skin, and how it is not like the experience of males with beigey pink skin. But we mustn't say that! Because that's harsh and not self-congratulatory, and that's the other thing that happens when white people make movies about racism: they have an uncommon (though not inevitable tendency to act like they've "solved" it, just by dramatising the story of one white dude who realises that one black dude is actually a much more valid human being than he'd assumed at first blush. At the very least, being movies made by guilt-ridden liberals for other guilt-ridden liberals, they have an appalling tendency to constantly communicate, right under the surface, the notion that, well at least we are better and more sophisticated than these awful rednecks wielding the N-word like a cudgel. Self-congratulatory, any way you cut it. But persuasive and insightful sociology? Christ, no.

I don't know when this kind of filmmaking began in the U.S. - the silent era, I'd bet - but one of the all-time most prominent examples is with us here today, 1967's Best Picture Oscar winner In the Heat of the Night. And, to be fair, one of the best examples as well, though the entire subgenre of racial message pictures is so endlessly dubious that merely being far above the curve hardly means much on the film's behalf. God knows it's important, for reasons as obvious as Sidney Poitier's career-best performance and the overt strength both emotional and physical that he gets to demonstrate (the scene where he slaps a white racist bully was revolutionary stuff at the time), and as esoteric as the way that Haskell Wexler lit scenes to favor Poitier's skin tones rather than his pale co-stars'. And the film's flatly descriptive approach to exploring race in America probably felt a bit more intense and meaningful in the thick of the Civil Rights Era than it does now.

That said, it has massive problems as drama that are in fact exacerbated by its insistence on Saying Something about racism in the context of a story that barely works as it is, and would be far better off clambering down from its soapbox. As you do not know if the slap and "They call me Mister Tibbs!" are your two points of reference for the film, In the Heat of the Night is a murder mystery: in the fictitious Mississippi town of Sparta (played by the legitimate Illinois town of Sparta, when filming in Mississippi proved too much of a political risk), the super-rich captain of industry about to build a big new factory and promote equal pay and colorblind hiring practices is found dead in an alley off the town's main (only?) street. Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) and his men have no fucking idea how to handle a homicide, but as luck would have it, there's a homicide detective from Philadelphia in town, just heading back north after a visit with his mother. Unluckily, this detective is black, and also sitting in Gillespie's jail, where he was placed for the unfathomable crime of sitting patiently, waiting for his train, in the small hours of the morning. Gillespie is able to sweet-talk this Det. Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) into lending some aid to Sparta's Keystone Kops, and in the end, Tibbs has to do nearly all of the work of solving the case himself, just for the sheer embarrassment the Spartans are doing to his profession. As a result of sharing close quarters with Tibbs for so long, Gillespie's not-very-extreme case of the racism is thawed out to the point where he ends the by smiling at Tibbs and wishing him well, to which Tibbs smiles back.

You will not that I began to drift away, rather quickly, from the actual murder of the progressive businessman, because that's exactly what In the Heat of the Night does. Frankly, the script - adapted by Stirling Silliphant from John Ball's novel, some years before Silliphant became a reliable creator of big-budget action pap like The Poseidon Adventure - isn't operating in good faith: the movie wants to have it both ways, first by telling a story into which racism finds its way, rather than telling a story about racism, then by openly not giving a tenth of a shit about the story once the hard-hitting moralising of the Tibbs/Gillespie plot opens up. The film suffers from the absolute worst kind of crime storytelling, where the killer is revealed in a careless way, shown to have arbitrary motives, and without anything that resembles foreshadowing in any meaningful regard, and even if In the Heat of the Night was a flawless depiction of race relations in late-'60s America - as it patently isn't - its joyful disregard of its own pretext would still be offensive. You can marry lecturing messages to taut storytelling, no matter how much the great movie messengers of the '60s seemed to genuinely believe that introducing a legitimate external conflict that was not directly connected to the message being presented would make the audience's head explode. In which regard, this film is still one of the best of its breed: the very same year, Poitier also starred in the stultifying Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a painfully earnest harangue whose failures as chamber drama make In the Heat of the Night seem like one of the decade's finest crime thrillers in comparison.

As far as being a message picture goes, In the Heat of the Night suffers considerably from how far away from 1967 we are now, though by the same token, it's easy to right off some of its gestures as necessary given that context, and as much as the movie seems safe and blandly liberal, this ain't Crash: the on-the-ground situation in Mississippi and other areas was sufficiently volatile that simply describing it, as In the Heat of the Night does, was valuable in a way that simply describing "there are racist people" in the 21st Century isn't, to say nothing of movies that revisit the Civil Rights Era for period-picture reasons, like the vile, necrotic Mississippi Burning.

What bothers me about the film is its simplicity. Having made, in Gillespie, a sufficiently complex vessel for the presumed progressive audience to feel good about their own response to racism, the film doesn't bother shading any of the rest of the inhabitants of Sparta whatsoever, populating its version of Mississippi with a parade of gargoyles. Were there people in Mississippi, in '66 and '67 as aggressively, transparently rotten in their racist sentiments as we see in this film? I am certain. But surely, not everybody was, and this is where In the Heat of the Night really falls into mucky self-love: not just "let's all congratulate each other for thinking the right thing", but "let's also congratulate each other for not being those fucking awful rednecks". It's the same thing as the crappy mystery plot, really: the film could be a compelling, effective drama if it based itself in observation, reality, and a sense of place - all things that we know director Norman Jewison to be capable of. His remarkably inconsistent career, at its peaks, has just that kind of lived-in authenticity; hell, with Fiddler on the Roof, he found a way to make a lived-in, naturalistic, culturally precise musical. But with In the Heat of the Night, he's content to remain comfortably outside the milieu, to such a degree that even the oppressive summer heat that matters so much to the tone of the story that it appears in the title doesn't really feel real (of course, Illinois in the autumn isn't hot and humid, but Jewison wasn't making a film about Illinois in the autumn).

Stripped of realistic context, the film has nothing left to it as drama; it turns into a simple screed about the right things and the wrong things to believe. That's useful as a political tool, and in '67, the idea of art as political tool was at its zenith in the United States. But it doesn't do much for In the Heat of the Night in the 2010s.

That all being said - and if I have more than emphasised the film's failures, it's largely because its reputation as a stone-cold classic Important Movie seems to me so inconceivably out of proportion to its actual qualities as cinema - the movie has enough to recommend it, chiefly Poitier and Steiger's incandescent pair of performances; the former better than the latter, as Jewison proved unwilling or unable to curb Steiger's impulse to give himself too much showy business and intensely observant but fussy Method filigree. But they are, both of them, roaring and magnificent, butting heads and simmering with resentment that lingers far later than the script needs it to, but just as long as the characters need it to; and thus are the characters these actors play considerably better than the roles they have been handed. Also, while Wexler's cinematography doesn't really suggest the tacky oppression of a Southern summer, the gritty neo-noir style before neo-noir was a thing is really quite marvelous to look out, leaching the sentiment and politeness out of a film that could easily have been unbearably polite. It's terrific nighttime imagery, very much like the great cinematography of the '70s a few years early. And Quincy Jones's bluesy score, if perhaps a bit too self-consciously musical to fit this material, is deservedly classic in its own right.

I mean, this isn't a bad movie. A stiff one, that needlessly prohibits itself from being much better, and one that lives and dies on its fervent promotion of a sociological idea that it never seriously considers we might disagree with. But the spirit of the times was with it, I guess. It is, by no remotely sane measure, one of the bravest or most powerful studies of American racism ever filmed, but it's got some level of potency, and for that alone it's at least worthy of respect and admiration, though I am quite befuddled by the people who so plainly love it.