“They call me Mister Tibbs”- Virgil Tibbs
In 1967, the bold and racially charged film In the Heat of the Night won the Oscar for Best picture. When all the meaning is stripped away from the film, In the Heat of the Night is a fast moving, well written murder mystery but the film is much more than just that. Pairing a Southern white police chief with an African American homicide detective from the North, the film takes an in depth look at racism as the title characters attempt to survive and solve a murder.
The film begins in Sparta, Mississippi with the discovery of the body of Mr. Colbert, a prominent business man who moved there to open a factory. Immediately the pressure is put on Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) to solve the somewhat high profile murder. Meanwhile, the racist attitude of Sparta is exemplified early in the film as African American Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is arrested while waiting for a bus simply because he has a large amount of money in his pocket. Arresting officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) is embarrassed to find out he arrested Philadelphia’s number one homicide detective. Reluctant to help the racist police chief, Tibbs is convinced to stay in Sparta and help when asked by the victim’s wife.
Forced to work together, Tibbs and Gillespie try to get along but it is difficult for Tibbs to trust the racist Gillespie and for Gillespie to believe in Tibbs. Their first and prime suspect is the wealthy plantation owner Eric Endicott (Larry Gates). During an interrogation, Tibbs manages to turn the entire town against him with a single slap, striking Endicott after Endicott slapped him. With Endicott seeing Tibbs as an enemy, Gillespie and Tibbs must solve the murder while dealing with relentless physical attacks from the racist inhabitants of Sparta.
Every portion of this film, from dialogue to directing, worked to make a number of strong statements about racism. Sometimes it was as simple as the use of a single word: boy. Gillespie was the main character that used the word the most. Originally it was what he called Tibbs as a racial slur but as the film went on and Gillespie came to respect Tibbs, he began calling his own men boy. The camera is also used to show the power struggle between Tibbs and the rest of the town. The first shift in power is shown when Tibbs examines the victim’s body. The camera stays tight on Tibbs’ hands throughout the scene, showing a close up of the African American hands examining the Caucasian body. From that point on the camera follows the shift in power as Gillespie begins to respect Tibbs.
By taking what is a first a very racist character, Gillespie, and pairing him with a brilliant African American homicide detective, In the Heat of a Night makes strong and sweeping statements about racism. A brilliantly put together film, In the Heat of the Night beat out Doctor Dolittle, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and heavy hitters the Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde for Best Picture. Stirling Silliphant won Best Writing for the film and Rod Steiger received a well deserved Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Gillespie. Every aspect of this film was brilliant, working together to create a thrilling crime drama as well as a scathing expose on the truths of racism. This is a 9 out of 10 film for me, a classic that should be seen by all.