By Paula Delaney
In the Heat of the Night – dir Norman Jewison – 1967
In the Heat of the Night is not a film about an unsolved crime. It’s a film about race relations in the South in the 1960’s, and a film that reminds the viewers who have witnessed the civil rights movement of the ambivalence and intolerance surrounding the acceptance of black Americans. The two main characters, Virgil Tibbs and Chief Gillespie, embody the emotions of America during this controversial time. The chief, who is initially cast as a racist more out of ignorance than out of hatred, eventually accepts Virgil for the man that he is, giving hope to not just himself but to the rest of the country. A touching scene at the end shows Tibbs boarding a train, while the Chief, blustery and arrogant, pauses from his constant tough-guy gum chewing and breaks into an uncharacteristic smile as he bids Tibbs good-bye. This is the message of In the Heat of the Night.
Sydney Poitier’s performance is one of his finest, and is one that truly put him on the Hollywood map, despite the delicate balance of Hollywood and race-relations at the time. In the film, Poitier plays the character of Virgil Tibbs, a black criminal investigator from Chicago, who, at the beginning of the movie, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time: Sparta, Mississippi, in the 1960’s. The viewer is first introduced to Poitier while is he is sitting in a train station, where he soon after becomes a suspect in the murder of Philip Colbert, a wealthy, white, financier who has been developing a new factory in this small southern town. In their haste to solve the crime, Tibbs is arrested without cause, and hauled to the Police Chief by Officer Sam Wood, played by Warren Oates. He presents Tibbs to Chief Bill Gillespie (played brilliantly by Rod Steiger who was to take home an Oscar for his performance) as though he is showing him a trophy. Steiger is blustery and cocky, making the viewer question his competence from the onset, unlike Poitier who is automatically viewed as the more savvy of the two, despite his imprisoned status.
The story carries the continued overtures of racism during the 1960’s. Tibbs is cleared as a suspect, legally, but is still an unwelcome black visitor in this small southern town. A tug of war between the Chief and Tibbs ensues around solving the crime, and just when Gillespie thinks he has nailed the suspect, Tibbs provides evidence to the contrary, providing the back-and-forth play of a typical buddy comedy. Tibbs is obviously the more competent investigator, and is finally requested to be on the case by the victim’s wife (played by Lee Grant), who realizes that the town will gladly settle on a scapegoat in their haste to solve the crime. Tibbs, understandably, shows hesitation about staying in town to solve the crime. Finally, his passion and commitment to his profession win out and he stays in Sparta at the risk of his own life. The locals try to run him out of town on several occasions, but Tibbs holds his ground, making many of the townsfolk, especially Gillespie, struggle with their preconceived notions of race and politics. The film is a classic whodunit, but goes beyond that. The viewer is lead through several false leads and the case becomes more and more high stakes for the chief, who struggles with his acceptance of a black man assisting him in the investigation. In the end, Tibbs finally solves the crime, to the relief of two innocent victims who were accused and jailed on circumstantial evidence, and to the joy of Chief Gillespie who has finally learned to accept Tibbs, and even to call him a friend.