In the Heat of the Night is a 1967 murder mystery set in a Southern town that sees a local police chief try to solve the crime with the assistance of a Northern homicide detective. What sets this film apart from your standard crime flick is that it’s layered with social commentary about the changing roles and expectations for Black men during this time. Its themes share some similarities with Night of the Living Dead (1968). As the characters interact with residents of the town the movie shows how various facets of such a society perceive and react to the presence of a Black man who exudes authority and erudition.
In the Heat of the Night begins with Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oats) patrolling the small town of Sparta, Mississippi. It’s a night time drive that offers a peek into life in the town. He grabs a bite to eat at a dingy fly-ridden diner that is owned by an awkward man who has a weird relationship with his pies. Wood is also a welcome peeping Tom (looking Tom is probably more accurate) as he lingers outside the home of a young woman with her naked body on display for all to see.
While patrolling Wood comes across a dead body in an alley. As it turns out the dead man is a prominent figure who has come to town with plans to build a factory that will bring jobs to the area which are much needed. With this realization, it becomes vitally important that the murder is solved quickly so plans for the factory can proceed.
Sparta is a seemingly small sleepy town that doesn’t see much action and certainly not murders. Given the death of this well-to-do man, it’s assumed that the murderer would most likely be someone from out of town and having committed the crime, they would be looking to leave via the train station. The local police chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), sends officers to search the train station at which they find an unfamiliar Black man, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), neatly dressed in a suit.
While being searched Tibbs is found to have a wallet filled with cash and the officers figure that they’ve got their man. Throughout the exchange, Tibbs is repeatedly referred to as “boy” despite being a grown man. He is promptly placed under arrested and taken down to the police station where he’s brought before Gillespie.
In a huge (but convenient) coincidence, Tibbs claims to be a homicide detective from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He explains that he earns $162.39 per week which is a rather tidy sum for the time. Gillespie seems quite flabbergasted and doesn’t believe Tibbs’ explanation as he is carrying around more money in his pocket than Gillespie makes in a month. Chief Gillespie is not only put off by a Black man earning more than him but also his use of proper grammar and diction.
Tibbs offers to provide proof that he is who he says he is and has them call the police department in Philadelphia for confirmation. Upon being reassured by Tibbs’ boss, Gillespie manipulates the situation into Tibbs staying to help with the murder investigation.
It becomes immediately clear that while Gillespie wants help he has a hard time accepting it from Tibbs. Being from a small Southern town during this period his pride and prejudice makes him recoil at Tibbs making more money than him or being more knowledgable. His expectations are for Tibbs to be below him so he has difficulties relating to him as an equal much less an officer with superior homicide experience.
I love police procedurals and investigations so the scene where they examine the body is one of my favorites though there are some issues. I could be wrong but I would think that even in the 1960s, collecting fingerprints would be a standard part of investigations. I didn’t get why Tibbs was examining the body without gloves but later picked up potential evidence with a handkerchief. This scene is Tibbs’ first contact as a police officer with residents of the town outside of the police station. The other men who attend the autopsy are reluctant to allow him to examine the body. They are openly hostile and question his presence in the room.
Surprisingly, while Gillespie is also biased against Tibbs he defends him against the townspeople. At various points in In the Heat of the Night when Gillespie is challenged or questioned by Tibbs, he becomes enraged and lashes out. At one point, he calls Tibbs the “n-word” because he believes a suspect is guilty of the murder while Tibbs thinks he’s innocent. Yet, he steps in and vouches for him in some situations while physically defending him in others.
Harvey, the first in a line of possible suspects also needs help from Tibbs as he is facing a possible murder charge. Yet, his first instinct is to question why Tibbs is dressed nicely in the sense that as a Black man he is unworthy of such clothing. Tibbs manages to talk Harvey into allowing him to help and gets him to tell his version of events on the night in question. I would not be inclined to help someone who is not only refusing my assistance but insulting me in the process.
After meeting and discussing the murder of her husband with Tibbs, the dead man’s wife, Mrs. Colbert, pushes for Tibbs to remain on the case. Given the town’s desperate need for jobs the mayor is willing to grant her wish. Allowing Tibbs to investigate the murder lets the police department off the hook if he can’t solve it but they’d look progressive if he can. The mayor appeals to Gillespie’s self-interest and convinces him to allow Tibbs to continue investigating. Tibbs also wants to solve the case so he can show the town that he’s capable of doing what they can’t.
The Endicott Farm is a large and long-standing institution in the area. The moment that I saw Black people picking cotton and a stereotypical Black lawn jockey figure I knew there would be some nonsense with its inhabitants. Endicott is an older man who is initially gracious to Tibbs and Gillespie but he is offended when he realizes that Tibbs is there to question and investigate him.
I don’t know why people slap each other in these older movies. Was this an actual thing where someone says something you don’t like and you just haul off and slap them across the face? Either way, Endicott has a veneer of genteel but it slips when challenged. He openly reminiscences about how things used to be when he could have a Black man murdered for any perceived slight and face no repercussions. Gillespie, Endicott, and the mayor are all surprised by Tibbs’ very human reaction of retaliating against Endicott. They view him as being out of line for striking a White man despite the man hitting him first.
This reminds me of crimes or discrimination being committed against Black people by non-Black people and the media being appalled by said Black person striking back. There seems to be a lingering expectation for Black people to grin and bear it when attacked or readily offer forgiveness. I think In the Heat of the Night does a great job of using this exchange to show how times were shifting. And the old guard’s discomfort with what was a new generation of Black people moving up in the world and standing up for themselves. There is a Black side and a White side of town and Tibbs stands out as an oddity in both areas.
On the Black side of town, Tibbs’ skin allows him to fit in but the clothes he wears and how he carries himself set him apart. He’s not mistreated but is rather viewed as being naive and uninitiated into the way things work in the area. For example, Tibbs meets another Black man who inquires about if he’s made arrangements for a place to stay. In a town of this size, a traveler would be lucky if there was one hotel. But, a hotel in this town would most likely not be willing to accommodate Tibbs. Thus the man welcomes Tibbs into the community, takes him under his wing, and offers him a place to stay. The murder was not committed in the Black community but for the most part, they don’t dissuade him from being on the case.
Later in In the Heat of the Night, Tibbs meets Mama, a Black woman who helps women in trouble get the help that they can’t obtain legally. She questions why Tibbs is working for the police because she believes that as a Black man he’s selling his soul by working for “the man”. She’s not hostile or disrespectful towards Tibbs. Rather, she regards him as being misguided and takes it upon herself to try to set him straight.
Meanwhile, on the White side of town, Tibbs is pretty much met with resistance every step of the way. Gillespie is supposed to be a quasi-partner to Tibbs but flys off the handle at the least provocation. A group of men are hired and readily take on the job to rough Tibbs up if not kill him. The first time Tibbs is in a room with just about anyone he’s met with inquiries about who he is and what authority he has to be asking questions. Most of the White residents in town see him as an interloper and do not treat him with the same degree of respect with which the would treat the other officers.
For example, the weirdo owner of the nasty diner is running a business that doesn’t seem to have a lot of customers. Granted the officers and Tibbs visit during the night but it’s open and there’s never anyone else inside. Yet, the shop owner outright refuses to serve Tibbs. Playing devil’s advocate you might think this is because of the investigation but the shop owner is cordial to Gillespie and Wood. Thus I think it’s safe to assume that his refusal to serve Tibbs is a result of his being Black.
As Tibbs, Gillespie, and Wood move throughout Sparta and come into contact with its various social groups we come to see that a lot is going on behind the facade. Wood attempts to hide his peeping Toms habits from Tibbs and becomes angry and defensive when it’s pointed out. He’s perfectly happy being a low-key pervert but suddenly sees fit to defend the young lady’s honor. Part of this might be a matter of being embarrassed or because the young woman is underage. But I think its also likely that he’s upset at the mere idea of Tibbs, a Black man, seeing the nude White young woman he’s been watching for quite some time.
Left to his own devices, by the time Gillespie was done, every man in Sparta would have been arrested for killing Mr. Colbert. Gillespie places greater emphasis on charging someone, anyone, rather than finding the actual killer. Being impulsive and lacking experience with homicides he jumps from theory to theory. As a result, everyone who might have information about or seems even tangentially connected to murder automatically becomes THE suspect.
Gillespie and Tibbs spend part of an evening together during which they talk and have their first and their only non-homicide related conversation. Ordinarily, Gillespie is a gruff and irritable bear of a man but he’s revealed to be lonely, unhappy with his life, and lamenting not having had kids or a wife. We don’t learn much about the details of Tibbs’ life back in Philadelphia but he is also unmarried though he’s come close. Tibbs seems to also be a bit lonely but he doesn’t have the same internal rage that Gillespie is carrying.
Just as the two seem to be bonding Gillespie goes off the rails again and rejects what he sees as Tibbs’ pity. The two are on equal footing in this regard but Gillespie chafes at it being pointed out. It’s a matter of machismo but also indicative of him not liking the idea of being equals with Tibbs. Gillespie mentions that nobody visits or spends time with him but here it is that when he has the makings of a friendship, he allows his delusional sense of superiority to push that person away.
This speaks to a larger issue within In the Heat of the Night and also society. Two people, Black and White, can have shared experiences and be in similar places in life. But, instead of recognizing the things held in common, the racist will fight tooth and nail to cling to feelings of superiority. Gillespie needs Tibbs professionally to help him solve this murder as failing to do so might impact his career. He also needs Tibbs personally as his hostile nature pushes other people away and has left him alone. Yet, he remains conflicted about accepting Tibbs’ help or his friendship.
In the Heat of the Night falls under one of my favorite movie genres, crime thrillers. But what makes it a great film that holds up over time is that the acting is good and the story is great. It’s deeper than your average cop movie but it touches on race in a way that still feels relevant today. The movie manages to be suspenseful despite there being no explosions and nobody getting shot. It’s just a solid well-constructed movie that captures your interest from the beginning and maintains it throughout the entire film.
If you have never seen In the Heat of the Night, make it your business to give it a watch. Otherwise, you’d be doing yourself a great disservice. If you have seen In the Heat of the Night but not recently, check it out again. It’s not one of those movies where you’ll notice something new on each watch but it just remains enjoyable. It’s a great movie to watch on your own but even better as a group. Especially, if you have that friend (or are that friend) that likes to yell stuff out at the screen.
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