Virgil Tibbs was only waiting for a train to take him back home from Sparta, Mississippi when he found himself involved in a murder investigation. A homicide expert from Pennsylvania, he clashes with Sparta’s police chief Bill Gillespie. The two begrudgingly partner despite their animosity in order to find the person responsible for the murder of Phillip Colbert.
In the Heat of the Night is a slow burn mystery film. Norman Jewison’s camera remains languid even in the heat of action. The Mississippi heat practically shimmers onscreen. In this town, prejudice and racism fester on the surface; nothing is hidden.
That Virgil Tibbs, a distinguished man in his field, encounters racism and disrespect is nothing new or surprising. The contempt Gillespie has for him, precisely because Tibbs surpasses him in expertise and rank, is to be expected. Gillespie might feel the same about a white homicide expert, but Tibbs is black, so it’s somehow more insulting. When racist Spartans attempt to attack Tibbs, his status as a police officer grants him no protection. Nothing does when his skin is black.
Possibly what I appreciated most about In the Heat of the Night – aside from Sidney Poitier’s “typically astonishing” (borrowing from a friend) performance – was its level of honesty. Racists are this ignorant, this arrogant, this terrifying. The racism was not glossed over, nor was Tibbs held responsible for it.
In 1967, race riots erupted throughout the country. The struggle for black civil rights continuously gained momentum even amidst some stunning losses. The film was necessary for its time and still is in our fraught reality now.
I was intentional in choosing this film as my second in the Blind Spot series. Sidney Poitier celebrated his 90th birthday on February 20th, and I was unable to pay tribute on the day. Poitier is a crucial figure in the representation of black people on film. Roles of depth and substance were repeatedly denied to black actors before Poitier arrived in Hollywood. He challenged the film industry’s demeaning portrayals. His characters were decent men. Men of conviction. They had humanity and agency. His self possessed, restrained performance as Virgil Tibbs is clearly one of his greatest.
This is an essential film because it lays racism bare, something few Hollywood films did. (Poitier did appear in the few that tackled the subject). Classic Hollywood ignored racism or tried to make it benign. That famous scene when Tibbs smacks Endicott across the face, it’s an exhilarating moment that couldn’t have happened in a film predating 1967. A black man could never strike a white man, even in self defense or retaliation, as Tibbs did. But you wouldn’t see a white man hit a black man at all, simply because he wanted to put that black man in his inferior place. These films were always very careful in preserving the goodness of white people.
In the Heat of the Night exposes the festering hate of the deep south, running in tandem with the reveal of a killer.