Written by: Stirling Silliphant
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant, Warren Oates, Larry Gates, James Patterson
No matter the skill, expertise, or knowledge someone possesses the most primitive of humanity simply cannot move past their skin color. An issue plaguing the world all over, but seemingly ever-present in the American south where it moves away from thoughts to brutal actions. This outright savagery displays the obstacles held by the protagonist in In the Heat of the Night. A grounded detective story with an uncomfortable amount of racism to sift through.
While in Sparta, Mississippi for personal reasons, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) gets dragged in as a suspect for the murder of a local businessman. Once it’s discovered he’s a top homicide detective from Philadelphia, he decides to help with the case of this hopeless police department. As they get behind the truth, he encounters more of the same, overt racism.
Having someone like Virgil Tibbs have to prove himself to a town full of racist trash does not make for the most entertaining viewing experience but manages to prove a point. This Best Picture-winning feature film sought to cross lines where meritocracy and racism could find a way to co-exist for the greater good and while viewing it through more modern eyes, it feels a bit misguided but it can be slightly forgiven. Virgil begins the story with pretty much every white character in the story believing him to be less than them because of his skin color, and he walks away from the story with at least a handful feeling a little less racist. Not the most uplifting conclusion, but a story that knows its characters and the distinct honesty the film has with this reality garners much appreciation from this reviewer.
The noticeable change seen in the characters comes from Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), who like everyone else, automatically thought Virgil was responsible for this murder simply because he’s black and happens to be in the same town as the crime. An absurd but realistic stupid assumption made in these towns during this era. The only thing really changing Gillespie’s mind about Virgil comes from the Philadelphia man being so far superior to anyone in this town in the practice of police work. Where others simply bash suspects into writing a confession, Virgil can quickly ascertain whether someone actually committed the crime through the shocking use of facts. Who would have thought? It comes through Virgil’s skill that he proves these racists wrong about him, but this film does not try to take the leap and insists this changes the heart of these people. A mistake a film nearly 40 years later in Green Book tries to make hilariously enough.
Part of what also plays into the uncomfortable nature of this narrative comes from the temperature always on display. As the title indicates, the hot days and nights of this Mississippi town leave these characters constantly glistening through sweat. It baffles me how Virgil does not simply sweat through his suits as he tries to navigate around this town. As shown in other films, extreme heat causes people to make dumb decisions because of the raised temperature and that certainly adds tension to an already testy environment whenever Virgil enters any space. It gives off this sweaty and uncomfortable feeling permeating each space, especially as Virgil already has to contend with the abhorrent racism at every corner.
As a narrative, the story takes its twists and turns in figuring out the real killer, but it definitely has no problem in dropping criticism in the way these Mississippi law enforcement officers go about their business as compared to Virgil. One can only dread what would have occurred to Virgil if he could not be vouched for as a fellow law enforcement professional as opposed to being the average Black person in this town. As mentioned before, instead of actually doing police work, these officers will go based on their instinct and try to force out a confession even if the person is innocent. It creates this unsettling feeling as well because of the worst-case scenario this could have turned into for Virgil. Shoddy police work when done on other white citizens can only cause a shiver to think what would have occurred to a person of color in this situation.
All these years later, it still feels a bit odd the one walking away with an acting Oscar was Rod Steiger not Sidney Poitier for their roles in this feature, but I guess that says plenty about the Academy at the time. Poitier brings a level of stoicness to this role in the way he maintains his composure amongst these racist cretins even though he would have the right to retaliate. He remains the shining beacon of this film and delivers some incredible lines like the famous, “They call me Mr. Tibbs” in his impactful retort to being called “boy.” Stellar work by this man unsurprisingly.
Definitely a film worth watching and has steadily withstood the test of time in showing the horrid racism existing in the country then and how not as much has changed, unfortunately. It makes for a strong detective story in sifting through all of the layers involved with these characters and leaves the audience hoping Virgil will survive all of this ruffling of the feathers without facing retaliation from the many racists this town has to offer.