Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night was released in 1967, the height of the Civil Rights movement and one of the most violent years in modern American history (between 1967 and 1968, there were 384 riots in 298 different cities, including the most infamous in Detroit and Newark). As the film is both a mystery-detective story and a socially conscious exploration of the fraught relations between whites and African Americans, it was a case of immaculate timing-the concerns outlined in the film were exactly those that had America tightly in its grip. Yet, more than 40 years have done little to diminish its impact, which speaks volumes about the film's enduring narrative and thematic richness and the fact that race relations-particularly in the starkly divided aftermath of the Trump Era, which has witnessed a horrifying resurrection of very public white supremacist rhetoric and action-are still a haunting problem.
The story involves the murder of rich Northern businessman who recently moved to the fictional small town of Sparta, Mississippi, in order to build a factory. An African American named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) happens to be waiting in the train station late that night after visiting his mother in another town, and the police arrest him, not only because he is black, but because he is an outsider. Tibbs's outsider status is demonstrated from the opening frames of the film, which show him arriving in town on a train, emphasizing that he is not a part of this community. Likewise, the film ends with his leaving town on a train, proving how transitory was the nature of his being there. This geographical emphasis is important to keep in mind because the film is arguably as much about the North/South divide as it is about the black/white divide.
Once Tibbs is arrested, the police chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), learns that he is, in fact, an ace homicide detective from Philadelphia who makes more in a week than Gillespie makes in a month. At the insistence of the widow (Lee Grant) of the murdered man, Tibbs is convinced to stay in town and help in the investigation, even though he is only grudgingly appreciated by Gillespie and despised by most of the locals. In this way, In the Heat of the Night can be seen as a late entry into the post-World War II socially conscious "message movies" in which a lone African-American character was inserted into a predominantly white environment, which allowed for racial tensions to be raised and eventually worked out (these were usually military-themed films, such as Mark Robson's Home of the Brave).
As the lone African-American character stranded in racist, small-town Mississippi, Virgil Tibbs is a fascinating and powerful character. At first, Tibbs seems to bear out many of the same characteristics that are often attributed to "Uncle Tom" characters: upright and noble, but powerless when faced with oppressive white forces. When Tibbs is first arrested in the train station by deputy Sam Wood (Warren Oates), he doesn't give the slightest hint of resistance. During the arrest, Wood refers to Tibbs with the derogatory name "boy" numerous times, slams him against the wall, and mocks him as a thief for having money in his wallet. Yet, Tibbs does nothing until he arrives at the police station and, in what Pauline Kael rightfully called a "high comic moment," reveals himself to be a police officer, much to Gillepsie's consternation (one of Steiger's greatest moments in the film is when he shows the badge to Sam Wood and responds to the deputy's dumbfounded silence with a roaring "Yeah! Oh yeah!").
It turns out that, in almost every conceivable way, Tibbs is the superior of every white man around him. He is intellectually superior to all the Sparta police officers; he is superior to the local coroner in knowledge about human anatomy; he is physically superior to a group of violent bigots who corner him in a warehouse; and he is morally superior because, even when he slips into angry prejudice of his own, he eventually recognizes his weakness. This multi-faceted superiority is obvious in every way, and Gillespie knows it when he says angrily, "You're so damn smart. You're smarter than any white man. You're just going to stay here and show us all."
Tibbs first demonstrates some of his authority when Gillespie demands that he turn over the results from the coroner's lab. Gillespie is after the wrong man, and Tibbs wants to ensure that his opinion on the case is heard. "You gonna give me that?" Gillespie asks, to which Tibbs replies firmly, "No, I am not." Later, Gillespie, in a fit of anger, yells, "Virgil, that's a funny name for a nigger boy who comes from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?" Tibbs's answer, which is so firm and indelible in Poitier's delivery that it was used as the title for one of the film's sequels, is: "They call me MISTER Tibbs." His stern insistence on the formal name "Mr. Tibbs" is especially notable because, up until the 1960s, most Southern newspapers omitted the courtesy titles "Mr." and "Mrs." before African American names.
However, Tibbs's most notable exercise of power happens just over an hour into the film. Tibbs and Gillespie have gone to question Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), a wealthy plantation owner who is suspected of the murder. Endicott at first appears to be comfortable with Tibbs, and they happily discuss flowers in his greenhouse. However, when Tibbs proceeds to explain to Endicott why they are questioning him, Endicott, infuriated that he is a suspect being questioned by "a Negro," silently walks up and slaps Tibbs across the face. While a traditional "Uncle Tom" character would have taken the slap with wounded dignity, Tibbs immediately, unthinkingly slaps Endicott right back. (Poitier insisted that this was the first time a major motion picture had ever depicted a black man striking a white man.)
At this moment, the film makes clear that Tibbs is putting himself in danger because Endicott is a powerful man in Sparta. But, at the same time, it emphasizes not only Tibbs's physical authority over the small, shrunken old man, but the fact that Endicott's slap was pathetic in its outdatedness. His following comment, delivered on the brink of tears-"There was a time when I could have had you shot"-only reaffirms this notion that Endicott is the last of a pathetic breed, the powerful plantation owner so intensely celebrated in The Birth of a Nation (1915), and now an outmoded relic of a time gone-by.
The scene could have ended there, but it continues outside, which shows the dual nature of the black/white relationship and racism in general. Tibbs, thoroughly insulted and bitter at Endicott's condescension, declares his intent to bring Endicott in for the murder: "Give me another day. Two days. I'm close. I can bring that fat cat down! I can bring him right off this hill!" Gillespie immediately notices the switch, that Tibbs has been goaded into going after Endicott for personal rather than professional reasons, and he remarks: "Oh, boy. You're just like the rest of us, ain't you?" Tibbs, as it turns out, has his own prejudices that bend him toward abusing the law to satisfy his own personal injury-at least temporarily. As Tibbs later admits, "I was hung up trying to get Endicott for personal reasons." The film suggests that, had Tibbs not realized this, he would have continued trying to get Endicott and, therefore, would have missed catching the actual criminal.
In the Heat of the Night's narrative and emotional core is the guarded relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie, which begins in almost comical hostility and ends in mutual admiration. What is most fascinating about the relationship is the fact that, with the exception of the Endicott episode, Tibbs and Gillespie spend almost no time actually working on the murder case together. Instead, the moments between the two characters are usually in the form of disputes over how Tibbs is investigating the case on his own. Yet, Poitier and Steiger have such strong chemistry together and they act so well in their respective roles that their relationship comes alive and grabs you on a gut level. It grabs you most of all because each actor is excellent in portraying the slow evolution of his character's worldview. This is not a one-sided development where only the obviously racist Gillespie learns to be more tolerant. There is just as much development in Tibbs's character, although his growth seems to be in moving beyond his Northern elitism.
For a race drama that is now more than four decades old, In the Heat of the Night, which won five Oscars in 1968, including Best Picture, has aged extremely well. Norman Jewison's direction is crisp and invigorating, and the gritty cinematography by Haskell Wexler, who was nominated for an Oscar that same year for his black-and-white work on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1967), avoids many of the stylistic flourishes that often date other films of its era, giving it a generally ageless look (the Oscar-winning editing was by Hal Ashby, who would soon become a major director of films such as Harold and Maude , Shampoo [1975), and Coming Home ). Prolific writer Sterling Silliphant, who was making the transition from writing primarily television dramas to feature films, provides a taut, engaging screenplay from John Ball's 1965 debut novel that is rich with both fiery outbursts and subtle tensions. In the Heat of the Night remains a powerful film that retains its ability to both entertain and make you think; its message about the slippery nature of racism and the way imbedded, unquestioned beliefs can contaminate an entire community is one that should never be forgotten and, unfortunately, is needed now more than ever.
Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © MGM / Kino Lorber
Overall Rating: (4)
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