On a hot, sticky night inSpartaMississippi, a businessman from the North who planned to open a factory that will employ the black community is found dead in an alley. The first thing the local police do is look for any suspicious characters at the pool hall and train station. Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) finds a lone black man sitting at the station, searches him and immediately takes him into custody. As it turns out, this man, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), is just passing through and is the lead homicide investigator inPhiladelphia’s police department. It takes a while for Virgil’s credentials to be taken seriously by the officers, but soon Chief Gillispie (Rod Steiger) recruits him to help out on the case. With the locals less than happy about a black man acting as part of the law, racial tensions start to flare in this tale of drama, mystery and crime.
Virgil represents an ideal person, regardless of race. He is educated, wears a nice suit, has a well paying, important job and speaks proper English. He has come further in his life than all the white men surrounding him in this little redneck town and that does not sit well with them. Through it all though, Virgil doesn’t gloat or lord himself over anyone else. He simply gives respect and expects it in return. In fact, the more involved he becomes in helping the police department solve this crime, the more respect he gains from Gillespie.
I believe this film won the Best Picture award because of the progressive way it portrayed racial tensions. There are two big moments where we are both proud of Virgil and partially fear for his life. This first is when Gillispie calls him ‘boy’ one too many times and then asks what his people up North call him. Virgil replies, boldly and slowly, “They call me Mister Tibbs.” Sounds simple enough today, but in a little racistMississippi town in the sixties a black man asking for respect from white men didn’t settle well. Later, when Virgil goes to question Endicott (Larry Gates), a man with many black servants who would gain the most from the murder, Endicott slaps Virgil. And Virgil slaps him right back. It’s a moment of shock, for the people in the room and the 1967 audiences. But it’s triumphant, making old Endicott remember that the days where he could just shoot a Endicott black man like Virgil are over.
For some of today’s audience this film may be a stark, unflattering reminder that racism was alive and a big part of some parts of the South. Those redneck boys trying to run Virgil off the road, the diner guy who refused to serve him and the way he was so quickly arrested for just waiting for a train may be shocking and appalling to some people. Unfortunately, those incidents were not far fetched for the time period.
In the Heat of the Night is a wonderful and engaging film. If you’re afraid the racial tensions will be too much, the thrilling crime and mystery helps add great elements that help balance everything out.
“Gillespie…you saw it, what are you going to do about it?”