40. In the Heat of the Night (1968)

Title: In the Heat of the Night

Release Date: 2 August, 1967

Oscar Ceremony: 10 April, 1968

Director: Norman Jewison

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates


Nominees: Bonnie & Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner


“They call me MISTER Tibbs!” – Virgil Tibbs

I first got acquainted with this movie in an airplane, but our relationship didn’t last long; I stopped it about 10 minutes in. Ever since then, I’ve been putting it off. Last weekend, I realized it was the next movie on my list and made it a family affair. My mom said it’s one of her favourite movies, and she didn’t want to miss out. When we put the DVD in, my dad came in and asked what we were watching. We replied “In the Heat of the Night” and he said “Ahhh I know it by heart by now” but begrudgingly sat down to watch it nonetheless.  After having finally seen it, I still stand by my opinion that it’s not a good airplane movie because it’s very static. HOWEVER, it’s a fantastic one, so get off that plane and go rent the DVD (is that still a thing? RIP Blockbusters.)

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It’s 1966 in Sparta, Mississippi. Around 3:30AM, a police officer named Sam Wood finds a dead body in the streets. The police chief, Bill Gillespie, orders him to go around town and look for the potential suspect. As Wood arrives at the train station, he finds a black man, Virgil Tibbs, patiently waiting for a train. Finding it suspiciously early (and for other obvious racist reasons), Wood decides to arrest him at gunpoint and search his wallet, where he finds $200. Obviously, that makes him the suspect, because what kind of black man would have that money lying around? He surely stole it from the man he killed. Wood takes Virgil Tibbs to the police station, where the extremely prejudiced Gillespie makes fun of his name and tries to get him to confess to the murder. However, to his surprise, he finds out that Tibbs is actually a police officer from Chicago, who makes a more than reasonable amount of money. Eager to get back home and try to catch the next available train, Tibbs asks Gillespie to call his chief back in Chicago, who can confirm his status and innocence. As it turns out, Tibbs happens to be the chief’s top homicide investigator, and the latter recommends that he stay to help the officers in Sparta. Neither party is very happy about that, but after a word from the mayor, Gillespie swallows his pride and asks Tibbs to stay. It’s not a smooth journey, but trust me, they need him.

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You don’t need to be a genius to know that America has serious issues when it comes to racism. Honestly, there’s racism, and then there’s the American South in the 1960s. This blog is not a history class or a place for political commentary, but dear lord how on Earth can people still behave and think this way in the 20th century? You don’t need to watch this movie to know that, but it still serves as a good reminder that even an extremely educated and well-off black man from the North is not immune to ridiculously despicable discrimination. Even after numerous occasions of proving himself, Virgil Tibbs gets treated like scum, and the audience doesn’t let that go unnoticed. Black people are expected to accept the fact that they will be crushed just like the cottonseed they were (or still are!) forced to pick.

Parts of In the Heat of the Night are actually rather comedic, but they don’t take away from the issue. On the contrary, they emphasize it. Some of the comments that the characters make about Virgil are so in-your-face and outrageous that you almost can’t take them seriously. It just goes to show how absurd this behaviour looks to outsiders. It’s like asking people to look in the mirror in the hopes of making them notice how stupid they are. Moreover, the officers and racist civilians that Virgil has to deal with are total losers, which further discredits their behaviour. They’re really in no place to pass judgement and it’s obvious that Virgil is 1000 times the man they’ll ever be.

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This movie has a great plot supported by a great script, but it would be nothing without its two leads, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. Sidney Poitier was the first black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor back in 1963 for Lilies of the Field. However, his fame and praise did not guarantee his immunity in all spheres of life. In fact, while In the Heat of the Night is set in Sparta, Mississippi, it actually had to be filmed in Sparta, Illinois because Poitier was once almost killed by the KKK while in Mississippi. However, they still had to film the cotton plantation scenes in the South because they couldn’t find any that were accurate enough in the North. Apparently, Poitier slept with a gun under his pillow during that part of the production, but he eventually received too many threats from local thugs and they had to move everything back to Illinois.

As for Rod Steiger, he wasn’t the first choice to play Officer Gillespie, but he went all out and even won the Oscar for Best Actor. He actually went through 263 packs of gum while attempting to authentically portray Gillespie’s annoying gum-chewing habit. He nailed all of the characters’ not-so-subtle mannerisms and as a result gave a really believable performance as an ignorant redneck police officer.

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Despite everything the protagonist has to endure, there’s still something oddly satisfying about watching this film. It’s grounded in realism, but at the same time it succeeds in bringing in a touch of comedy without being disrespectful. There IS a resolution to everything (after all, this IS Hollywood) and thankfully, it opens the door to hope and reconciliation. We can all learn a little something by watching In the Heat of the Night.

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