One night in 1966 in Sparta, Mississippi, police officer Sam Wood discovers a dead body. Being a small town, the crime rate in Sparta is unsurprisingly low. Even so, Officer Wood recognizes that the man’s death was no accident. He brings the case to the attention of his superior, Chief Gillespie, who leads the investigation. Shortly thereafter, Officer Wood stumbles upon an African American man waiting at the train station. Suspecting him of the crime, he arrests him, though his feeling of elation quickly turns to embarrassment when he eventually learns Tibbs is one of Philadelphia’s greatest homicide detectives. Tibbs’s chief then recommends the seasoned detective help assist the murder case in Sparta. Although neither Tibbs nor Gillespie are enchanted with the idea, they agree.
Detective Tibbs immediately proves he can handle himself well in this difficult situation when he determines several key aspects about the victim and his demise. The deceased’s name is Phillip Colbert. He was a wealthy industrialist who recently moved to Sparta from Chicago. Such a person moving to a small town only to end up as one of its few murder victims is highly suspicious – it might even be a commentary on the town’s backlash to the changing social tides.
Indeed, being set in Mississippi in the 1960s when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, Norman Jewison’s film doesn’t pull any punches depicting the racially charged beliefs of the average southerner at the time. The white characters causally insert racial epitaphs in their speech, and Officer Wood calls Tibbs “boy” upon meeting him for the first time, thus indicating that he doesn’t acknowledge him as a man. The chilling thing is that, given the general attitudes at the time, the police of this small town could very easily have thrown the blame on an African American man, content that no one would conduct a full investigation to prove otherwise. Fortunately for Tibbs, it ultimately turned out Officer Wood was effectively wrestling above his weight class.
The film is at its most off-putting when Tibbs and Gillespie visit Endicott, a well-known racist and plantation owner. He publicly opposes Colbert’s factory, for working there would pay much more money to any black workers than a job at his plantation. When they walk into his estate, it’s as though they have gone back in time one-hundred years with his workers picking cotton in the hot sun. Tibbs attempts to interrogate Endicott only for the plantation owner to slap him in the face. To his surprise, Tibbs responds in kind. As shocking as this scene is to a modern viewer, it was inconceivable in 1967 for an African American character to strike a white one – even if the latter character happened to be an unapologetic bigot.
What I find fascinating about this scenario is how it goes about justifying a standard mystery trope. Fictional police tend not to be particularly useful in a murder investigation, requiring the main character to go sleuthing on their own to accomplish anything. The Sparta police end up jumping to conclusions because they constantly fail to think things through. It gets especially ridiculous when they place a new murder suspect one cell over from the previous one. However, even taking race relations out of the equation, the Sparta police, through no fault of their own, simply don’t know the first thing about investigating such a heinous, complicated crime. They lack the forensics knowledge Tibbs displays within seconds of examining the body. In real life, the burden of investigating such a crime would fall upon the state police, so Gillespie and his men were lucky a skilled homicide detective was in the area on the night of the murder.
From the onset, it’s easy for the audience to surmise that Gillespie is the archetypical racist policeman, and though he is doubtlessly a product of his culture, he’s a more complicated take than most examples. When Officer Wood bursts into the room with Tibbs happily declaring he captured the murderer, Gillespie is appalled to learn his subordinate didn’t bother to search the suspect or check for his identification. Furthermore, while he clearly doesn’t like the prospect of working with a black man, he ends up reluctantly begging for Tibbs’s help when he realizes he and his force are in over their heads. Throughout the course of the film, he slowly, yet surely gains a lot of respect for Tibbs, eventually culminating in him rescuing the homicide detective from a gang of hooligans sent by Endicott.
A film is typically only as good as its lead character, and Tibbs delivers on all fronts. Even when his introduction involves him getting unceremoniously arrested by the racist Officer Wood, you get a sense of how important this character is. He is intelligent, handles himself well under pressure, and as Endicott learns, doesn’t tolerate it when others step out of line. What is especially interesting about him is that he manages to solve the case without resorting to excessive violence. In many works with a detective protagonist, the audience expects them to get in an action-packed fight scene or two to spice things up. This isn’t Tibbs’s style; even in a pinch, he tries to talk down his aggressors first. Only when he realizes such a tactic will prove futile does he grab the nearest weapon available.
Though In the Heat of the Night has many individually great components, what I believe truly ties everything together is the final act. Throughout the entire film, you’re led to believe that the racially charged environment of Sparta has something to do with the murder. Endicott in particular would have the perfect motivation to want Colbert dead. Then again, any one of the equally racist thugs populating the town could have done the deed themselves just to make a statement. The film entertains this premise for a majority of its runtime before taking a step back and revealing it was all a gigantic red herring. Colbert was killed accidently by a diner employee named Ralph in a mugging gone wrong. He needed the money in order to fund an abortion for his 16-year-old girlfriend whom he inadvertently impregnated. After a tense standoff with one of the thugs, Tibbs manages to arrest Ralph and departs on the train to Philadelphia the following morning. Signifying the endpoint of his arc, Gillespie bids him farewell.
In the Heat of the Night was quite the transgressive film for its day. Premiering a mere four years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Sidney Poitier found himself portraying the knowledgeable Virgil Tibbs. An African American man was cast in a lead role in a Hollywood production when such a premise was unthinkable a decade prior. When looking back on this film, it’s easy to get the impression that, being one of the first Hollywood productions to have an African American as the lead character, In the Heat of the Night hasn’t held up so well. However, I would posit that one aspect in particular allows it to stand the test of time. While not subtle about his themes of racism, Mr. Jewison deftly elected not to have them permeate every single aspect of his work. The narrative says its piece, yet it manages to provide an intriguing mystery with several twists someone versed in these kinds of stories wouldn’t see coming. In other words, it’s a solid story in its own right that happens to have a progressive message attached to it. As such, In the Heat of the Night is an essential watch for any film fan – doubly so for anyone who likes a good mystery.
Final Score: 8/10