The obvious danger with films that address topical issues is that they will seem dated decades after release. Such is the case with many 1960s films dealing with race relations, including some of Sidney Poitier’s work. “A Patch of Blue,” in which Poitier plays an erudite Black man who befriends and betters the life of a blind young white woman, released in 1965 under the trite tagline, “Love is color blind,” feels horribly quaint today.
With “In the Heat of the Night,” the opposite is true.
Because the film tackled controversial issues at the time of its release in 1967, a year that saw major protests against police brutality and the U.S. Supreme Court decision to finally declare state anti-interracial marriage laws unconstitutional, the film’s edge has not been blunted by time. After the wrongful deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others, the film is more relevant than ever.
In Poitier’s first scene in “In the Heat of the Night,” his character Virgil Tibbs finds himself in a precarious position: He is a Black man at the wrong end of a cop’s gun.
By this point in the story, the viewer has been introduced to the basics of the mystery. The fictional Sparta, Mississippi, is a peaceful small town that has been shaken by the death of Colbert, an out-of-state industrialist who intended to build a factory that would have put Sparta on the map.
Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is initially enthralled that such an obvious suspect as Tibbs has simply landed in his lap. His logic is chilling. A rich white man is dead and a Black man is out late at night; ergo, he has found the murderer.
However, Gillespie’s authority is overturned when he finds that Tibbs, who wasn’t able to reach for his badge without risking his life, is actually law enforcement. Not only is Tibbs a cop, but he is also a better-paid expert from a Northern homicide squad. While Gillespie can’t solve one measly case, Tibbs basically solves cases in his sleep.
Thanks to his unsympathizing Philadelphia police boss, a gaggle of clueless Sparta deputies and his own moral principles, Tibbs is forced to help an ungrateful Gillespie solve Colbert’s murder. As they work the case together, Gillespie finds a distance growing between himself and the prejudiced townsfolk he is supposed to police.
Stirling Silliphant’s script, based on a novel by John Ball, is full of memorable dialogue and snappy one-liners that confront the realities of corrosive racism. This is best displayed when Gillespie disgustingly mocks the name “Virgil.”
Parallels are drawn between Sparta’s abhorrent racism and a resistance to technological modernization. Sparta is stuck in its pre-Reconstruction ways and Colbert’s killing affirms that its public institutions are designed to resist any change that may challenge established power dynamics. As Tibbs digs deeper into the social problems that underlie this apparently idyllic town, he must drag it kicking and screaming into the 20th century.
A key scene occurs when Tibbs defies all warnings and chases a lead to cotton plantation owner Eric Endicott. His empire built on slave labor, Endicott is an affront to everything Tibbs believes in. When an insulted Endicott hits the detective after a question he deems impudent, Tibbs responds without a moment’s hesitation by planting a harder, much more impactful slap across Endicott’s face.
This powerful moment explodes beyond the boundaries of the frame. Tibbs courageously refuses to lose his dignity and topples the preexisting racist social hierarchy. In director Norman Jewison’s excellent breakdown of the scene, he refers to it as “the slap heard round the world.”
To track every clue and plot out the details of the murder case is to miss the point of the story. “In the Heat of the Night” is a murder mystery that does not much care who the murderer is. Instead, it uses the framework of a detective story to clash the two complex personalities of its lead characters, both portrayed with immense personal depth. Together, Poitier and Steiger tap into the pulse of the nation, capturing the racial tension of the long, hot summer of 1967.
Poitier’s involvement elevates the material. With a lesser actor in the role of Tibbs, “In the Heat of the Night” would come across as pretentious and be consumed by the liberal movie fantasy of neat racial reconciliation. However, Poitier intelligently works against the film’s tendency to turn Tibbs into a metaphor.
The ending is rightfully inconclusive. The growing mutual respect between Tibbs and Gillespie leads to a relationship based on interdependence, but there remains a general unease. It is naive to expect that Sparta’s racial intolerance is a relic of the past. The curiously emotionless resolution is appropriate given that the film examines the same systemic injustices that still plague American society.
“In the Heat of the Night” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Contact Neil Haeems at [email protected].