In the Heat of the Night is one of the most important films ever made. On the face of it, the picture is a fictional mystery drama. However, under the surface, it is so much more than that, and goes way beyond the confines of John Ball’s original novel of the same name.
When the movie was made, in 1967, no cinematic project had ever challenged the murderous bigotry of America in such an edgy and no-frills way. Led by the world’s biggest African-American star, Sidney Poitier, In the Heat of the Night was Black America literally striking back against the years of horrific treatment they had faced.
The narrative follows Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective from Philadelphia, who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a small town, Sparta, in rural Mississippi. Director Norman Jewison managed to capture with panache the subtle differences and similarities between Poitier’s Tibbs and his white counterpart, Bill Gillespie, in an incredible achievement of storytelling. The film remains one of the starkest indictments of America’s social politics at the time, showing the negatives but also offering up an antidote by showing that mutual respect was possible.
Famously, the film kicks off when local policeman Sam Wood discovers the murdered Colbert. Wood finds Virgil Tibbs, a black man with a full wallet, at the train station and arrests him for the murder. Taken to the police station, chief Gillespie accuses Tibbs of the murder and robbery, but is quickly stopped in his tracks when he finds out that Tibbs is a famed homicide inspector from Philadelphia.
In a surreal turn of events, Tibbs and Gillespie begin to investigate Colbert’s murder. Battling against ignorance and bigotry in all its forms, Tibbs eventually manages to crack the case. The revelation of Tibbs’ identity at the start of the film is an effective means of exposing America’s quite frankly ridiculous social mores.
In the Heat of the Night was a breath of fresh air when first released. It differed from films such as The Chase and Hurry Sundown, which offered confused, apologist accounts of the South, but its gritty depiction found resonance with black audiences as it was a realistic representation of the insidious racism that they encountered on a daily basis.
Sparta, the town in which the film is set, hates outsiders in every sense of the word, and this burning narrative undercurrent set a precedent for films such as Mississippi Burning and stories such as A Time to Kill in the future.
Jewison specifically wanted to tell an anti-racist story, and this permeates the film’s 110 minutes. Later, the Canadian auteur revealed that it displayed a belief he’d long-held of the plight of African-Americans. He said: “It’s you against the world. It’s like going to war. Everybody is trying to tell you something different and they are always putting obstacles in your way.”
The film is perhaps Poitier’s finest moment, and the symbolic importance of a pair of scenes will never be forgotten. Famously, the first is when Gillespie mocks Tibbs’ name Virgil, and says: “That’s a funny name for a nigger boy that comes from Philadelphia! What do they call you up there?”. Annoyed, Tiibs responds: “They call me Mister Tibbs!” The organic frustration displayed by Poitier in the scene spoke for the millions of African-Americans forced to counter this kind of boneheaded ignorance daily.
The second, the scene in which Tibbs slaps Endicott, is the most significant moment. Interestingly, the scene does not feature in the original novel, and was nearly omitted from the movie, but the decision to keep it reflects what Jewison and Poitier wanted to achieve with the film. Poitier later recalled: “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll make this movie for you if you give me your absolute guarantee when he slaps me I slap him right back and you guarantee that it will play in every version of this movie. I try not to do things that are against nature.”
At first, Jewison was unsure of the scene when the film was released, as reports claimed that young audiences laughed when Tibbs slapped Endicott. However, quickly, discussion of the scene as a significant act of defiance spread. America’s most eminent African-American actor physically striking back against racism popularised the film, earning the nickname ‘Superspade Versus the Rednecks’ in the process.
The film was also the first major Hollywood film shot in colour, with the lighting set in consideration for a black person’s complexion. The lighting was adjusted specifically to accommodate Poitier, which again set the standard high for all movies moving forward. Poitier, in no uncertain terms, shone in his quest to expose the South’s racism.
One of the most significant movies ever released, Sidney Poitier lives on through his defiant performance of Tibbs. It’s a must-watch and is as essential as any history book on that dark time.