In the Heat of the Night – Race meets cinema: 50 years on and has anything changed?

Rewatching Norman Jewison’s 1967 classic In the Heat of the Night after almost two decades, I was struck by how topical and politically sharp it still seems, both an indictment of the fact that, fifty years on, the race relations debate in America appears to have barely moved forward, and also a testament to the brilliance of the film itself. 

The film is based on the novel of the same name by John Ball, set in small town Mississippi at the height of the civil rights struggle. A bigshot Chicago businessman building a factory in the town is found robbed and murdered in an alley. Moments later, a well-dressed black man is discovered at the local train station – so, naturally, he is arrested – with barely a question asked – and becomes the prime suspect. But all is not as it seems. When the gum-chewing Chief of Police, Gillespie – played by Rod Steiger in an Oscar-winning turn – searches the man, he discovers that Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier at the very height of his powers) is a police officer. And not just any police officer – he just happens to be Philadelphia’s top homicide expert.

A reluctant Tibbs is forced to help the bumbling Gillespie, a man out of his depth, imperiously dismissing each suspect that Gillespie pins his hopes on. Tibbs relishes his technical superiority, taking delight in demolishing the police chief’s various theories by deconstructing his hasty conjectures and focusing on the evidence.

The murder mystery at the film’s heart propels the narrative forward. There is scarcely a wasted word, a padded scene. Indeed, often Jewison simply leaves the viewer to fill in the blanks, and the film is much the stronger for it.

What makes In the Heat of the Night such compelling viewing is the dynamic between Steiger and Tibbs and how it evolves over the course of the film. Steiger begins as a stereotypical ‘redneck’ police chief operating in the deep south – but we gradually discover that he is more than that, possessing a feral cunning and a subterranean morality that asserts itself as he watches Tibbs at work, pursuing the case even in the teeth of racial abuse and threats to his life.

When Tibbs at first refuses to assist, Steiger correctly gauges Tibbs’ desire to prove his superiority to Steiger and his merry band of white hicks. ‘You’ve got such a big head, you can’t pass the opportunity by.’

Jewison is equally careful not to paint Tibbs as some sort of saint-like avatar. He’s a man with his own faults, including more than a trace of hubris brought on by his own aggrieved sensibilities. At one point he becomes so determined to pin the crime on a local cotton plantation owner – Endicott – an old-school racist and business rival of the murder victim – that he pursues him blindly to the exclusion of more credible suspects. 

His sole interaction with Endicott leads to one of the film’s most iconic scenes. When Endicott – at first overly pleasant to Tibbs – discovers that Tibbs is, in fact, attempting to question him as a suspect in the murder, he slaps him. To the astonishment of all present – including a slack-jawed Steiger, a tray-bearing black house-servant, and movie audiences around the country – Tibbs slaps Endicott right back. Holding his cheek, Endicott – bearing the expression of a man whose entire world has just crumbled around his ears – says, in a hollow voice, ‘There was a time when I could have had you shot.’    

Thankfully, that time is long in the past. (Though, given this summer’s goings-on in America, some might argue that this isn’t quite the case.)

For me, the film works first and foremost as an engrossing crime story. The themes and messaging that surround the central mystery simply serve to add an emotional heft that resonates long after the final scene. The dialogue is particularly memorable. One quote in particular became a rallying cry and remains one of the most familiar lines from American cinema. When asked by Gillespie – astonished that a black man might occupy so lofty a position as homicide expert – what people call him back home, Tibbs replies: ‘They call me Mister Tibbs.’

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