- Director: Norman Jewison
- Writers: Stirling Silliphant, based on the novel by John Ball
- Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Larry Gates, Quentin Dean, and Beah Richards
- Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#75), 5 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor – Rod Steiger, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound), 2 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Norman Jewison, Best Sound Effects)
- Where to Watch: Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV
As a murder mystery, In the Heat of the Night is a fairly run-of-the-mill procedural somewhere on the par of your average episode of NCIS. Fortunately for us, and fortunately for the movie, that’s not really the point. Instead, the movie is remembered for its portrayal of the relationship between a racist white police chief (Rod Steiger) and a Black detective from Philadelphia who just happened to be in town (Sidney Poitier), as they investigate the murder of an out-of-town industrial tycoon in a small Mississippi town. Steiger isn’t “cured” by the end, and Poitier’s detective is under no urge whatsoever to stay in town after the murder is solved, but they believably get to a place of mutual semi-respect by the end.
That the movie works at all is a testament to the performances of the two lead actors, particularly Poitier, though it was Steiger who won the Oscar. Two moments from the movie immediately became cultural touchstones. In one early scene, Steiger, incredulous that Poitier talks back to him, asks, “what do they call a n***** like you in Philadelphia,” to which Poitier shouts back “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” Later, after Tibbs questions the motives of a local rich dude (Larry Gates), the man slaps him in the face, Tibbs immediately and unhesitatingly slaps him back. The story goes that Poitier took the part on the condition the slap would be shown in all versions of the movie, no matter where it played. He and Steiger later recounted going to New York theaters and sitting in the back, to gauge audience reaction. They reported that Black audiences cheered wildly while white audiences reacted with shocked whispers.
Sidney Poitier had the honor, and suffered the burden, of being the only major Black star in Hollywood for much of his career. He had been raised in the Bahamas by an Afro-Bahamian family, though he was born in Miami while the family was on vacation and thus had American citizenship. He first gained fame in 1955 as a wayward student in Blackboard Jungle. He went on to become the first male Black actor to receive an Oscar nomination, for The Defiant Ones, and five years later became the first to actually win the Oscar, for Lillies of the Field in 1963. In 1967, at the height of the Civil Rights movement in the American South, he was at the height of his own box office popularity, starring not only in this movie but also in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (as the doctor fiancee of a white girl bringing him to meet her parents, played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy), and the English hit To Sir, With Love, in which he plays a teacher in a troubled London school. He often had trouble finding roles that balanced his desire not just to play a faultless, subservient Black person, while also being conscious of setting a “good example” and representing his entire race. It’s not a fair thing to place on one person, but it was placed on Poitier, and it has remained the experience of various bits of minority “representation” through the decades.
In the Heat of the Night is probably the best example of the kinds of roles Poitier wished he could find more of, and among his movies the one that people today are the most likely to have seen. As seen in the “slap” scene, his character can’t always control his anger. He frequently thoroughly confuses the white members of the police department by blithely barreling into places he supposedly shouldn’t, given the rules of their society. He seems heroic, because he runs heedlessly into danger, even after people warn him not to, but at the same time, is pride a virtue if it gets you killed? He puts himself in more than one situation over the course of the movie where he could easily be hurt or killed by the bigoted locals. They’re obviously in the wrong, but as a viewer, their behavior is predictable to us in a way it doesn’t necessarily seem to be to Tibbs. This works as one of the major sources of tension in the movie.
Norman Jewison was a Canadian director who had a series of hits all through this era, in all sorts of genres, from The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming to Rollerball to Jesus Christ Superstar. His movies were often very topical to present-day issues even while still living in their genres. In the Heat of the Night is a great example of that, a crime procedural that gives the filmmakers a point of entry into a variety of issues. Jewison was hardly a Mississippi insider, and that was probably a good thing, because it allowed him to see things for how they were. They weren’t all good-but-misguided. The town of Sparta, Mississippi, as seen in this movie, hates outsiders and hates itself. Their prejudices aren’t just seen as a malevolent force on others, but a malevolent force against the people trying to exert it. A northern industrial magnate wants to open a factory in town, but gets murdered. A well-trained detective who just happens to be Black shows up at the same time, and Rod Steiger’s initial instinct is that he is the murderer, with no evidence whatsoever. Steiger and the rest of the locals would have run Tibbs out of town on a rail regardless, had it not been for the intervention of the tycoon’s widow (Lee Grant), who insists that he’s the only competent person to work on the investigation.
In the Heat of the Night has a grimy, muddy feel appropriate to its setting. The soundtrack is full of grungy blues tracks, including the title track by Ray Charles, which was a hit at the time. Steiger’s performance is like a bulldog. He lives alone, and we can tell he’s pretty much miserable all the time, regardless of whether a Black guy is around to give him sass. The look of the movie is not far off from a 70s grindhouse flick. But at the same time, this was one of the first movies to specifically light with a Black actor in mind. Even today, movies and TV shows can get this wrong, but this was one of the first instances of a director and cinematographer getting it right.
Despite subject matter that would, at least in some parts of the country, have been wildly controversial at the time, In the Heat of the Night was a big hit, and beat other classics like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde for the Best Picture Oscar that year. It spawned two sequels, both also starring Poitier, over the next decade, though both proved far less successful, as well as a later, long running TV series which starred Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins as the police chief and Tibbs, respectively. And it’s in the idea that this movie could translate to a TV series that it’s likely that many modern viewers will see it. Can it be forgiven its very basic procedural elements because of the social context and the great performances? I would generally say yes. This is a thriller, but one based on our knowledge of the social issues of the time, not based on who the murderer is.