Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) does all it can from the earliest scenes to establish the viewer’s moral superiority over the place and the people of Sparta, Mississippi—the fictional setting of this film. In the first scene we see Virgil Tibbs step down from a train that has stopped in Sparta. In the second scene we see two scrofulous men in a run-down diner. One is trying to kill a fly with a rubber band. The other is a cop drinking coffee. There is tension between them, we later learn its cause, though at first the cause appears to be a lemon pie that the cop loves but which the counterman hides beneath the counter so the cop will think it is sold out. There is one piece of cake beneath a cover, and when the counterman lifts the cover, we see another fly trapped inside with the cake.
Warren Oates plays the policeman, Sam Wood, who manages to perspire throughout the film. Sparta is a hot town. Sam patrols the town, driving down a residential street and slowing in front of a house where, we learn later, he often slows down—to watch a young girl standing naked in front of a window. She is hot too, in more ways than one. When Sam drives on, he discovers a body crumpled in the street, and the plot begins to unfold.
The basic premise of this film focuses on an educated, well mannered African American detective from Philadelphia (PA) who has a layover at the Sparta train station while he waits for a connection. He has been visiting his mother in a nearby town, and when the murdered body is discovered, the local sheriff, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), tells his deputies to look for drifters, hobos, anyone who might be passing through. Tibbs, a strange black man reading in the train station, fits the bill. He’s arrested. The deputy is suspicious of Tibbs as soon as he sees him—primarily because he is a black man whom he doesn’t recognize, probably also because he is well dressed and is reading. He addresses Tibbs as “boy,” a term used throughout the film by various townspeople to express their dislike for and sense of superiority over Tibbs and other African Americans. Tibbs gets Gillespie to call his captain in Philadelphia and is cleared as a suspect but is also assigned to assist in investigating the murder. Tibbs does not want to assist, and Gillespie does not want his help either. They become unwilling partners.
The murder victim Colbert had planned to build a factory in town, a factory that would hire 1000 workers, at least half of whom would be black. He was a Northerner whose factory would have brought change to the town, change that some are resisting, especially the wealthy landowner Endicott. He lives in a grand mansion outside the town. His hobby is growing orchids. Tibbs at first suspects him of involvement in the crime, though he eventually realizes that Endicott’s reputation as a racist had more to do with his suspicions than evidence and clues. The real truth of the crime is more sordid and mundane and in fact not especially intriguing.
The interest of the film grows not out of the efforts of Tibbs and Gillespie to solve the murder but rather out of their interactions with one another, and out of the reactions of the townspeople to an African American detective from Philadelphia, PA, intruding in their affairs. We identify with Tibbs and with no one else in the film. We share his outrage at his repeated encounters with racism, in comments people make, in a carful of rednecks trying to run his car off the road, in Endicott’s patronizing comments about how black people need to be taken care of like orchids. The film fuels our sense of moral superiority over the inhabitants of Sparta.
The point of the film is to show that racism and racists are bad. This is not an especially sophisticated or shocking lesson, from our standpoint in 2009, but it was a lesson that in 1967 would have had a powerful impact on audiences that saw the film, especially audiences that included people not as clear in their own thinking about race and civil rights as the makers of the film might have regarded themselves to be.
From a 2009 perspective, the film dramatizes the gradual awakening of the mid-twentieth South to the issue of civil rights and racial equality. Gillespie is the character in whom this awakening occurs. At first Gillespie is shown as a good ol’ boy sheriff who is quick to resort to easy conclusions, especially when it comes to solving the murder of a prominent developer such as Colbert. After he gives up on Tibbs as a suspects he then begins to suspect a young man found with Colvert’s wallet. He assumes the man is the murderer. Tibbs points out that the suspect is left-handed but that the murder was committed by a right-handed man because of the nature and location of the wound. Gillespie doesn’t like being shown up and corrected by Tibbs, and he yells. He yells often in the film. Rod Steiger is effective as a fierce Southern sheriff. But Gillespie also grows to appreciate Tibbs’ skills and his determination to solve the murder. (He accuses Tibbs of wanting to prove to all the white people in town that he is smarter than they are—Tibbs does not dispute the accusation, and in fact it convinces him to stay in town and investigate the murder). Gillespie finds his position as sheriff in jeopardy because he is willing to work with and accept the advice of a black man—Endicott and the mayor both imply that he may lose his job as a result.
An interesting scene occurs in Gillespie’s living room. Gillespie is sprawled out on his sofa, and Tibbs is sitting in a chair. They are drinking and talking. Gillespie talks about being lonely and isolated and tells Tibbs that he is the first human being who has ever been in his house. They seem on the verge of forming a bond, establishing a link, but when Gillespie asks Tibbs whether he is lonely and Tibbs responds, “No lonelier than you are,” Gillespie responds by saying that he doesn’t need pity. In this scene we see how much the two men have in common—both are unmarried, without wives or families, both feel somehow out of place and isolated. Gillespie more than Tibbs seems to need human companionship, but the barriers of race and the prejudices of a region and a historical moment prevent him from recognizing in Tibbs a kindred soul—at least until the end of the film.
Gillespie is a man who is more intelligent and of more substance than his time and place might allow him to be. His mettle becomes clear as a result of the murder and of Tibbs role in solving it. Although Tibbs is risking his life as he investigates the crime—in the climactic scenes of the film, two cars full of local citizens with guns are hunting him—Gillespie through his developing respect for Tibbs is risking his job and his place in the town as well.
The film was shot on location, and there are many scenes of local buildings and streets and downtown areas that make the film seem realistic. It is set in a fictional town in Mississippi named Sparta. By showing how Gillespie at first confuses Tibbs’ home town in Pennsylvania with Philadelphia, Mississippi, the film clearly associates its fictional setting with the actual town where only a few years before three young civil rights workers had been brutally murdered. In the Heat of the Night specifically operates within the reverberations of those events and of the civil rights movement in general. On the way to visit Endicott, Tibbs and Gillespie drive past expansive fields of cotton where black people are busy picking the crop and large industrial machines are harvesting it. The scene is an image of change—the comparison between Tibbs himself and the black people working in the fields, the contrast between the laborers picking cotton by hand and the industrial machines harvesting the plant. When Gillespie and Tibbs arrive at the mansion—a large brick plantation house—they go to the front door and a black man answers the bell. Again there is a contrast between the black servant and Tibbs. The contrast culminates in the greenhouse where Colbert tends to his orchids. When Colbert realizes that Tibbs and Gillespie have come to interrogate him about Colbert’s murder, he becomes angry and slaps Tibbs, who immediately slaps him back. Gillespie does not react, and Endicott is enraged at his lack of a response. When Tibbs and Gillespie leave, Endicott is left weeping in anger and humiliation in his greenhouse. This is a wonderful scene, one that (as I recall) promoted audiences to clap and cheer.
A problem with the film is the lack of nuance in how it represents the racism of the people of Sparta. Everyone is racist. Everyone is suspicious of Tibbs and speaks to him with disrespect. No one stands up for him or likes him. The only person who demands that he be kept on the case is Colbert’s widow—she is from the North and therefore more respectful of black men. It is also doubtful how long an aggressive and outspoken black man like Tibbs would actually have survived in a Mississippi town like Sparta in 1967.
There are only two scenes in the film where Tibbs interacts with other black people.
What made Poitier an attractive African American actor in 1967? First and foremost, he in ways was more like a white actor in black skin than an African American. As Virgil Tibbs in the film he spoke with a distinguished accent that sounds almost British. He dressed impeccably. He carried himself with force and dignity and stood up for himself. He was not a black Southerner (though he might have been, since his mother lived in the South). In many ways he portrayed a “safe” African American character for white audiences to admire. Would the film have worked as well, would the protagonist have been as successful in eliciting audience sympathy, if Tibbs had been a black man from Sparta who lacked Poitier’s elegant demeanor and his non-ethnic accent? Of course, the basic premise of the film requires that Tibbs be an outsider, but as a black man so intensively deracinated, Poitier makes it easy for largely white audiences to like him. This is not criticism of Poitier—he was an important transitional actor, a man who paved the way for the participation of African Americans in the film industry, from Denzel Washington to Samuel Jackson to Will Smith to Mos Def.
This is one of the first films in which an African American actor is shown standing up against white characters and surviving—the scene in which Tibbs slaps Endicott is an important moment.