Starring: Howard E. Rollins Jr., Adolph Caesar, Larry Riley, Denzel Washington, Art Evans, David Alan Grier, David Harris
Director: Norman Jewison
Summary: During WWII, an African-American officer investigates a murder that may have been racially motivated
Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Caesar), Adapted Screenplay
Initially, this movie looked to be suspiciously similar to Jewison’s previous BP winner, In the Heat of the Night: both involve a black man from the North sent to the deep south to investigate a murder, where the White police/military doubt his abilities and he has to put up with tons of racism despite being by far the most competent person there. With that said however, the films end up being quite different and in this case, I found this movie to be the superior one. For one, the way they are told is very different, with this one having a large chunk of the story told through flashbacks that are quite effective at getting us to know the characters. Second, the mystery aspect of the murder in here is handled a lot better: one of my big problems with ITHOTN was that the mystery is solved in an abrupt and confusing manner at the end, like it’s something they just had to get out of the way, whereas here it develops well and has a number of good twists and turns.
Most importantly though, it has more depth to its themes: ITHOTN was basically a proto-classy Blaxploitation film where the super-smart and dignified black guy one-ups the bumbling racist white hicks, with the white police chief learning a lesson by the end. This movie is really about racial self-hatred, revolving around a Northern, light-skinned black man who hates the Southern black men around him who he sees as ignorant and “holding the race back”, and has an extremely conflicted self-identity. To me, this is much more interesting territory and the film is much stronger for it. I will also say that Adolph Caesar would have been my pick for Best Supporting Actor (over Haing S. Ngor), as he was really outstanding as the murdered military officer.
Overall: Norman Jewison again tackles the subject of racism in the South, but this time his source material is more layered and engaging than that of his Best Picture Winner In the Heat of the Night, and he still has a terrific performance to rely upon (Sidney Poitier in ITHOTN, Adolph Caesar in this film).