Director: Norman Jewison
Producer: Walter Mirisch
Writers: John Ball (novel), Stirling Silliphant (screenplay)
Photography: Haskell Wexler
Music: Quincy Jones, Ray Charles
Cast: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Larry Gates, James Patterson, William Schallert, Beah Richards, Larry Mann, Peter Whitney, Quentin Dean, Scott Wilson
“They call me MISTER Tibbs!”
With those five words, Sidney Poitier shook up the world, creating a watershed moment in racial commentary and showing just how powerful an impact film could have on society, and vice versa. You know a film is cutting edge when its setting (Sparta, Mississippi) had to be shot further north (Sparta, Illinois) because its themes made it too dangerous to actually shoot in the Deep South. (B)
Released during the height of the Civil Rights Movement — just two years after the Watts Riots and the murder of Malcom X, and only a year prior to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy — In the Heat of the Night addressed the racial tensions that were already boiling over in a divided United States, and it did so with a simple premise — place two men together, one black and one white, and let them overcome their prejudices while striving for a common goal.
The idea had been used to great success a decade earlier with Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958), starring Poitier alongside Tony Curtis as two escaped prisoners, shackled together, who are forced to cooperate if they are going to survive as fugitives. In the Heat of the Night merely flipped this idea, making the black and white lead characters cops rather than criminals, and placing them at the center of a murder mystery in the small town of Sparta, Mississippi. The narrative begins when Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) comes across a dead body lying in the street. Scanning the area for possible suspects, Wood finds a black man at a train station and brings him in, technically on suspicion of murder, but actually on his own racist suspicion of “dangerous skin color.” Back at the police station, cocky, overweight Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is shocked to realize that his deputy officer has not only arrested an innocent man, but a fellow cop!
That man of course is Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), a lead homicide detective from Philadelphia who was about to catch his train back north. Feeling disrespected, Tibbs readies himself to leave town, but after seeing the clear hopelessness in these small town cops ever solving the case, he gets permission from his Philly PD superior to stay and help. From here, it’s a classic mystery drama in buddy cop form, with Poitier’s experienced detective proving far superior in sniffing out clues and Steiger’s gum-smacking chief trying to arrest somebody, anybody, and send Tibbs back on his merry way (Steiger chewed 263 packs of gum throughout the shoot). (A) It’s gumshoe and gum-chew, and together, they make for one of the great movie teams in history, not because they’re so compatible, but because their relationship changes from mutual hate to earned respect.
Based on John Ball’s 1965 novel and adapted for the screen by Stirling Silliphant, the story is fast-moving and engaging all the way, moving from one suspect to another on the whims of Tibbs’ intuition. The puzzle ends with a bit of a twist, centering around the beautiful 16-year-old girl Delores Purdy (Quentin Dean) and the introduction of a new service-providing character, Mama Caleba (Beah Richards). But perhaps even more compelling than the case are the racial confrontations that Tibbs has to deal with while working in the Deep South — a white restaurant owner refuses to serve him; another white man predicts that “this negro won’t live past Saturday;” and a group of locals in a Confederate-flag-plated car corner him and call Gillespie a “n*gger lover.”
But standing out more than any of these incidents is a greenhouse scene where Tibbs and Gillespie question rich tycoon Eric Endicott (Larry Gates) for his possibility of motive. At the first suggestion that he may be involved in the murder, Endicott slaps Tibbs right in the face, only for Tibbs to slap him right back. “The slap heard round the world,” it was the first time when an African American had slapped a Caucasian on screen, instantly making Poitier the greatest screen heroes in African American history. The cheers came not because he was slapping a white person, but because it was a white bigot, as evidenced by his “colored person” lawn ornament, his black servant in his home, his description of “the negro … needing care,” and his fuming response to the slap: “There was a time I could have had you shot.”
Well, the times were a changin’, and this film was proof. At the BAFTA film festival, it was honored with the United Nations award for its depiction of American race relations, and it did very well at the Academy Awards, winning five, Best Picture, Actor (Steiger), Adapted Screenplay (Silliphant), Editing (Hal Ashby) and Sound. Left out of the equation was Poitier, who did not even receive a nomination, possibly because the Academy had spread their votes out across his other powerful roles that year (To Sir, With Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?).
Also denied was director Norman Jewison, who lost out to Mike Nichols for The Graduate. Jewison’s direction is solid, from the chaotic subjective shots of a suspect running through the woods to the quick zoom forward at the very moment the dead body is discovered. There’s even some humorous mise-en-scene at the time Poitier is cornered in a garage. Hand-in-hand in the process was editor Hal Ashby, who would go on to become a renowned director himself for films like Harold and Maude (1971) and Being There (1979), while the team of Quincy Jones and Ray Charles provided a memorable score and title song, respectively.
But of all these individual pieces, Poitier was the true reason In the Heat of the Night is still being talked about today. In 1963, he had become the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor with Lilies of the Field, and by 1968, he was the #1 box office draw in America. His presence in this film is one of those iconic parts that permeates throughout time, one who’s effect is felt every time a race film is made today, especially those that Jewison has done with the ultimate Poitier protege, Denzel Washington, first in A Soldier’s Story (1984) and again in The Hurricane (1999). In the Heat of the Night was followed by two sequels — They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971) — as well as a successful TV series starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins. A classic for the ages.
CITE A: In the Heat of the Night DVD inside booklet
CITE B: Norman Jewison, AFI Top 100 Films broadcast (CBS)