“In the Heat of the Night” (1967) is still a dazzling and powerful movie that is as pertinent and imperative as ever. The movie is a thriller about a murder in a small town in Mississippi – that forces a black detective from Philadelphia to join forces with the local bigot chief of police in order to solve the case. It’s clever that the mystery and the sleuthing that would normally be at the forefront of the story become secondary to the movie’s exploration of America’s racism. It portrays a raw vision of the South full of hatred in the 60s while showcasing two brilliant performances in Rod Steiger (Oscar for Best Actor) and Sidney Poitier.
The cunning plot revolves around the homicide of a wealthy industrialist named Phillip Colbert who has moved from Chicago to Sparta, Mississippi, to build a factory there. Late one night, police officer Sam Wood discovers Colbert’s murdered body lying in the street. Cantankerous chief Gillespie (Steiger) leads the investigation. At the train station, Wood finds a black man, Virgil Tibbs(Poitier) and arrests him. Gillespie accuses Tibbs of the murder, and is embarrassed to learn Tibbs is a police officer from Philadelphia.
There’s one scene early on that has incredible urgency – especially given the current events in our country. The deceased’s wife – Mrs. Colbert – witnesses the racist way in which Tibbs is being treated – and shouts in grief and frustration “My God… WHAT kind of people are you? What kind of PLACE is this?” Her cry speaks not only about the specific office she’s in – but about the South, about our country as a whole – and it travels across time to ring in our ears today.
The theme of connectivity and the necessity to work together despite differences is the ultimate lesson illustrated. It’s worth noting three instances that I find particularly moving and significant. Notice the way director Norman Jewison focuses and lingers the camera on these moments in which Tibbs shows empathy and solidarity to white people – and it is done through physical touch. Pay attention to how he holds and inspects the body of the deceased. Later as he’s forced to break the news to the widow of her husband’s death – watch the awkward yet ultimate contact. Eventually, Tibbs has to investigate a wrongly accused person’s wrists. He literally reaches his hands across the racial divide. This idea will be highlighted even further when an entitled plantation owner slaps Tibbs on the face and he slaps him back with his hand. Poitier is restrained and dignified – yet his eyes convey the anger and frustration.
At the time of the release of the film Poitier was the biggest money-making star in the world. The year “In the Heat of the Night” came out – the first African American actor to win the Oscar in a leading role (he won in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field”) had two other films released as well – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “To Sir With Love.” Yet, the film had to be mostly shot in the North for Poitier had reservations about going south of the Mason-Dixie line.
The film – which won five Oscars including Best Picture – is also important for the stupendous score by Quincy Jones and Haskell Wexler’s photography – who recognized that the standard lighting in film would produce glare on most black actors.
Below is one of the quotes in the film – considered by many to be one of the best in cinema.
Gillespie: “That’s a funny name for a n—- boy that comes from Philadelphia! What do they call you up there?”
Tibbs: “They call me Mister Tibbs!”
Available to stream on Prime Video and rent on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Redbox and Google Play.
Directed by Norman Jewison
Written by Stirling Silliphant (screenplay), John Ball (novel)
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Quentin Dean
“More than an actor (and Academy-Award winner), Sidney Poitier is an artist. A writer and director, a thinker and critic, a humanitarian and diplomat, his presence as a cultural icon has long been one of protest and humanity. His career defined and documented the modern history of blacks in American film, and his depiction of proud and powerful characters was and remains revolutionary.
Born in 1927 in Miami, Florida, Sidney Poitier grew up in the small village of Cat Island, Bahamas. His father, a poor tomato farmer, moved the family to the capital, Nassau, when Poitier was eleven. It was there that he first encountered cinema. Even at a young age, he recognized the ability of cinema to expand one’s view of reality. At the age of sixteen, Poitier moved to New York and found a job as a dishwasher. Soon after, he began working as a janitor for the American Negro Theater in exchange for acting lessons.
While working at the American Negro Theater, Poitier was given the role of understudying Harry Belefonte in the play ‘Days of our Youth.’ Filling in for Belefonte one night, Poitier made his public debut. This led to a small role in the Greek comedy ‘Lysistrata.’ Though nervous and unsure of his lines, Poitier was a big hit. He continued to perform in plays until 1950, when he made his film debut in No Way Out. No Way Out, a violent tale of racial hatred, made him a hero back home in the Bahamas. The colonial government deemed it too explosive and censored it. The subsequent protest that erupted gave birth to the political party that would eventually overturn British rule.
Throughout the fifties, Poitier made some of the most important and controversial movies of the time. Addressing issues of racial equality abroad, he made Cry, The Beloved Country, about apartheid in South Africa. He later took on problems closer to home in Blackboard Jungle and especially The Defiant Ones, about two escaped prisoners who must overcome issues of race in their struggle for freedom. For his role in The Defiant Ones, Poitier was nominated for an Academy Award.
In 1959, Poitier returned to the stage with a stirring performance of Walter Lee in Lorraine Hansberry’s play ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ the first play by a black playwright to show on Broadway. It was an insightful and moving reflection of black family life, and it had great popular appeal. Poitier would reprise his role for the Hollywood adaptation in 1961. It was not, however, until 1963, for his role in Lillies of the Field, that the movie industry saluted Poitier with its greatest award. In an era where Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Prize and Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court, Sidney Poitier was the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Poitier followed up this triumph with an electrifying performance as a black detective from the north trying to solve a murder in a southern town in Norman Jewison’s In The Heat of the Night. Having concerned himself with elucidating the problems of racial inequality in many of its manifestations, Poitier tackled one of the great taboos of the time. With Patch of Blue and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he focused on interracial romance. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was the first Hollywood movie about interracial romance not to end tragically. By the time of its completion in the late sixties, Poitier was one of Hollywood’s most popular stars.
In the fallout from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, Poitier became the target of criticism from segments of the black community. Accused of being too passive in a scathing article in the New York Times, Poitier retreated to the Bahamas to reassess his life. When he re-emerged, he shifted his energies from acting to directing. Beginning with BUCK AND THE PREACHER, Poitier directed a series of highly entertaining films, including Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do it Again, and the classic comedy Stir Crazy, starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.
After a decade away from acting, Sidney returned to the screen in 1988 for Shoot to Kill. Returning to apartheid-free South Africa nearly fifty years after Cry, The Beloved Country, Poitier played one of the great heroes for racial equality, Nelson Mandela. In the 1997 television docudrama Mandela and De Klerk, Poitier returned triumphantly to a theme he has dealt with throughout his career. After half a century in show business and fifty-five roles, Sidney Poitier’s indomitable strength and commitment shine through in everything he does: ‘I was saying to an audience, this is who I am; look at me’.”
Haskell Wexler’s First Color Film
Having worked exclusively with black and white film, even winning an Oscar in 1967 for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, In The Heat of the Night was acclaimed Director of Photography, Haskell Wexler’s first foray into color film. As DP, Wexler “understood that white and black skin required different lighting techniques. Wexler used low light so Poitier’s facial features were clear. As Mark Harris writes, before this, Poitier “had often been the victim of thoughtless over-lighting designed for white actors that added glare to his face and rendered his expressions indistinct”. If Poitier appeared expressionless, he would also appear mysterious and unknowable; to forge a connection between him and an already anxious audience, he needs to be completely visible. The camera takes on a humanizing force.” (Sensesofcinema.com)
Sidney Poitier’s Dignified Touch in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night
“During the summer of 1967, the United States continued to burn. Streets stewed with riots, protests, and violence. That July in Detroit and Newark, police beat, tortured, and murdered black bodies in the hundreds. The 1967 Detroit riots began on July 23, in the middle of a heatwave. It was precipitated by a police raid on an unlicensed bar in the early hours of the morning, where a group of 82 African-Americans were celebrating the return of two servicemen from the Vietnam War. Expecting only a small group to be gathered, and convinced most of them had prior convictions, the police response exceeded the reality of the situation – locking the group upstairs, and holding them without charge, while waiting for additional wagons to arrive. The ensuing riots followed those sparked ten days earlier, in Newark, New Jersey, also instigated by police brutality, this time against 40 year-old John Smith, a black cabdriver accused of tailgating a police car, who was beaten so badly, for allegedly resisting arrest, that he could barely walk.
The promises of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were repeatedly frustrated. Institutionalized racism persisted, as it continues to do today. In the South, and especially in Mississippi, change was met with vicious hostility. Stained with the blood of countless lynchings – including the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963, and the murder of three civil rights workers in the so-called Freedom Summer of 1964 – Mississippi was the site of ongoing racial terrorism. In the Heat of the Night rises from this horror, and the ghosts of the dead follow Tibbs around town.
A feverish tension crackles in each frame of In the Heat of the Night, sparked by the very real danger involved in making the film. In the Heat of the Night is not a ‘historical fiction’ as such but very much an urgent product of its time. Producer Walter Mirisch has recounted United Artists’ concerns about whether the film would lead to riots. When production moved from Illinois to Tennessee for just a few days, the cast and crew were regularly harassed; Poitier was so unnerved he slept with a gun under his pillow. It was a feeling he had experienced before. Even an actor of Poitier’s stature and visibility was regularly threatened; a trip to Mississippi with Harry Belafonte in 1964 had drawn the attention of the Ku Klux Klan.
Despite the volatile situation on the streets, 1967 was Sidney Poitier’s year at the movies. Two films, James Clavell’s To Sir, With Love and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, idealised his goodness through sentimentality. But as his third of that mammoth year, In the Heat of the Night did something more – it issued a dignified yet defiant challenge to film audiences to take a black man on his own terms, not theirs. It is a landmark film in the representation of African-American masculinity, even for Poitier, whose cool elegance, inner strength, good looks, restraint and intelligence, had secured his status as one of Hollywood’s few leading black man. He rarely played a man without self-respect; rarely a role that could be defined as negative or narrow. Towering above them all, Virgil Tibbs is arguably his most complex character. He’s a figure of admiration and authority, the smartest in the room in the sharpest suit; but also stubborn, sometimes reckless, and flawed.
While American cinema in the 1960s featured a number of significant black actors who helped break down racial stereotypes, including Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr., Poitier wears the mantle of many firsts. In 1963, he was the first African-American awarded an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field. With In the Heat of the Night, Poitier became the first black man to play a detective, and even more importantly, the first to hit a white man in an American film…
The slap transcends the confines of the scene: Tibbs’s hand across a white face reclaims black male dignity. Not just angry or defiant, it’s an expression of what will no longer be tolerated in human relations. And it’s courageous. Tibbs refuses to be a ‘whipping boy,’ reinforced by his unwillingness to be forced out of town by either Gillespie or the boys who chase him around; his body won’t bend like those in Endicott’s fields. The cowering here is reversed, with Endicott shaken, close to weeping.
Poitier’s dignity renders Tibbs cool under fire. Rather than worry about Tibbs, we follow him confidently along. Poitier inspires ease and comfort.” (Sensesofcinema.com)