“They call me Mister Tibbs.” When Virgil utters this classic line to Chief Gillespie in 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night”, the racial tensions have already been well-defined. And while the movie is a police drama/murder mystery, it’s the racial contention between a black Philadelphia police detective and the small Mississippi town that makes the film truly memorable. “In the Heat of the Night” won five Academy Awards including Best Picture and inspired two sequels and a popular TV series. But it’s the movie’s statement on 1960’s Southern racism and it’s strong black lead character that causes it to be recognized as a ground-breaking film.
The movie takes place in the small fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi. While out on patrol a deputy comes across the body of a wealthy business man. After ruling that the man was murdered, Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) sends a deputy to look around town. While checking out the train station, the deputy comes across a black man sitting inside. Unjustly assuming the man is the killer, the deputy arrests him and brings him to the station. The man informs Chief Gillespie that his name is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and he’s a homicide detective from Philadelphia. Virgil’s captain back in Philly recommends that he stay in Sparta and help with the murder investigation. Neither Virgil or Gillespie like the idea yet they both agree. But the case may never be solved due the incompetence of the police department and the numerous racial barriers that keep Tibbs from accomplishing anything.
Even though this is a crime drama, the murder mystery itself never feels all that important. The investigation spends most of its time looking in the wrong directions and when the killer is finally revealed it feels too convenient. This is the movie’s one significant shortcoming. A tighter more engaging mystery would have added another intense dimension to the story. But it could easily be argued that the murder mystery is simply a backdrop to the greater story of a small town police chief and a big city detective breaking down the walls of racism while dealing with their own personal biases. Steiger and Poitier are great together and watching their complex and often times abrasive relationship unfold provides us with the movie’s best moments.
The great attention given to the town and its citizens is another thing that makes the movie work. The small town South is perfectly captured and there was never a time I questioned its genuineness for a second. From its assortment of main street stores to its rundown parts of town, the film succeeds in providing the perfect setting. But while we saw the current day South we also catch a glimpse of the old South during a scene in which Gillespie and Tibbs go to question a rich plantation owner named Endicott. The drive up to the main house is lined with cotton fields filled with black workers and it almost feels as though the movie has moved back in time. This also leads to the famous scene where Endicott slaps Tibbs once he realizes he is being questioned for the murder. Tibbs slaps him back, something unheard of in that day. Tibbs’ physical retaliation drew attention from around the country once the movie was released and it marked an interesting turn in the way many movies treated black characters.
“In the Heat of the Night” certainly gets points for its head-on approach to the topic of racism. It also manages to keep the audience engaged by first getting us invested in Virgil Tibbs, then showing us the racially fueled obstacles and dangers that he was up against in Sparta, Mississippi. We also get a fantastic character in Chief Gillespie and it’s fascinating to watch him evolve as he fights with the community expectations and his own inner struggles. The small town vibe permeates every single scene and the hot and humid Southern summer makes everything sweatier and grimier. It’s just unfortunate that the murder mystery never feels as serious or as threatening as it should have been. That’s the only thing holding down “In the Heat of the Night”. But it’s something that did make a difference for me.
I saw this movie in the sixties when it had a lot more impact. It was out at a time of some very ugly racism – REAL racism and not the manufactured kind of today. I don’t think younger folks can fully appreciate it.