Growing up my mother was not a big fan of movies, but she loved Sidney Poitier. If To Sir, With Love or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was on, we would be in front of the television. Oddly enough, of the three iconic films Poitier was a part of in 1967, Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night was the film that eluded me until I was much older.
On the surface the film is plays like a standard police procedural. Underneath it crackles with racial tension and social commentary. Fifty years after its original release, In the Heat of the Night still feels astonishingly relevant, especially when some are attempting to normalize racism while carrying tiki torches down the street.
It is racism that ignites much of the tension between Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and many of the locals in Sparta, Mississippi. On a stopover in the small town while waiting to change trains, Tibbs inadvertently gets caught up in a homicide investigation when one of sheriff Bill Gillespie’s (Rod Steiger) officers mistakes him for a possible suspect. In Sparta simply being black is enough reason to assume wrongdoing.
Eventually being assigned by his boss to aide Gillespie’s investigation, Tibbs finds road blocks every step of the way. Gillespie and his men are so eager to make an arrest that they are reluctant to listen to logic. Furthermore, most of the white members of the town, with the exception of the victim’s wife (Lee Grant), find Tibbs’ presence more worrisome than a possible killer on the loose.
Aside from being an intriguing whodunnit mystery, Jewison’s film rides a wave of captivating defiance. Much of this hangs on Tibbs’ shoulders as he refuses to be pushed around, even striking back at a suspect who arrogantly slaps him to show dominance. He frequently struggles to remain dignified in situations when he clearly wants to scream in rage; and when he is fearful for his own life. Though Steiger took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in the film, Poitier’s delicate performance channeled the tightrope of emotions many black people still must walk today.
This is not to take away from Steiger’s performance though, as Gillespie’s slow evolution from bullish racist to genuinely wanting Tibbs approval is a sight to behold. Throughout the film Jewison shows the building conflict within Gillespie. He wants to put Tibbs in his place as a black man, but also realizes that Tibbs is his best shot at solving the case.
It can be argued that only a small step is taken towards racial harmony by the end of the film, but it is an important step nonetheless. In the Heat of the Night does not attempt to solve America’s racial divide in a couple of hours, but rather displays the ugliness of racism in its many forms. For it is only when the Gillespie’s of the world truly open their eyes to their actions, and that of those around them, can mutual understanding and respect be reached.
Friday, November 3, 6:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Friday, November 17, 11:15 AM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
This film is part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Black Star series running from November 3, 2017 to December 22, 2017.