In the Heat of the Night (1967)


I’m not a poet by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t resist saying the title of this film over and over. In the Heat of the Night. In the Heat of the Night. In the Heat of the Night. It has a great rhythm to it, and Wikipedia tells me that this particular arrangement of meter is called an anapest. To be fair, though, I think the title stands out to me more vividly because of the late 1980s TV show derived from the film, which used to air on USA in syndication.

Though I’ve probably seen Sidney Poitier in something before, I never before now appreciated his presence. He’s amazing in this role as Virgil Tibbs, exuding quiet confidence in the face of blatant racism. Poitier’s character – an expert homicide detective with the police force in Philadelphia – has clearly earned respect in his position, but at the same time, isn’t surprised by his reception, not even from the very first moment he’s arrested in a case less of mistaken identity than of blame-the-first-black-man-you-see.

It’s so easy to depict racism in the South – Southern-ness itself as a sort of shorthand for racist – and yet Northerners don’t seem to be as willing to face culpability for the legacy of slavery and oppression in this country. Not our problem, we think. Or maybe part of it is shock. Not in the big, dramatic explosions of violence against an uppity black man, because we could do such a thing. It’s the small moments of inhumanity that shock us, jokes and dismissals, because if we really think hard enough, look deeply enough into ourselves, we might see a reminder of something familiar, something we’ve done to diminish the humanity of someone who wasn’t white.

This film was released in 1967, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. In today’s Oscar climate, it’s hard to imagine such a bold decision as to award this movie Best Picture. I wonder how that came about, choosing this movie over the year’s other nominees, which included The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. What was it that made the difference – that famous scene where a white suspect slaps Tibbs and, for the first time in cinematic history, the black man slaps back?

I really liked this film, which is especially notable considering I don’t fully understand the resolution of the crime. Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of crime-solver television and reading mystery novels (almost half of the last twenty novels I’ve read have been Agatha Christie’s). I’m always terrible at picking up on clues and figuring out who-dun-it, so I can’t say whether this film succeeds as a solvable mystery, but it does set the appropriate scene for a gritty crime drama with a more serious undercurrent. It makes sense that the pairing of Tibbs and Chief Gillespie inspired a television show, because they share an interesting dynamic and tension. It’s quite a stretch, though, that Tibbs would want to stick around a place like Sparta, Mississippi.

Virgil Tibbs has to be infallible among this group of mediocre small-town cops and backwoods hicks just to stay out of jail. Respect is even harder to come by, and it’s unclear whether he gets it from anyone by film’s end, except maybe the police chief. Strange how so many of the themes in a 50-year-old film ring just as true today.


Theme: Race Relations

First Time Watching? Yes

Final Verdict: I’ll call him Mister Tibbs


One response

  1. Pingback: Meta-post: The Ranking | Year of the Oscar

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