I love it when I watch an old film that seems more like something that could have been shot in a more modern era. With In the Heat of the Night, Norman Jewison achieves just that, yet what is ever more impressive is that the Toronto native handles Stirling Silliphant’s timeless screenplay with the humanism it deserves.
Featuring a star-studded cast that includes Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant and Warren Oates, In the Heat of the Night is a based on a John Ball novel of the same name, wherein a black man by the name of Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is accused of murder in the quiet Mississippi town of Sparta, until it is quickly revealed that he is in fact Philadelphia’s finest homicide detective. Although he is initially offended for being racially profiled by the local police department, Mr. Tibbs is instructed by his own police chief to aid in the murder investigation, which not only builds further tension with the local police chief Gillespie (Steiger), but also draws the unwarranted ire of a deeply racist community.
In the Heat of the Night was no doubt risky business in 1967, where the civil rights movement was at a contentious height, having already gained numerous basic human rights for the black community. Yet, few films of the time would so perfectly encapsulate the zeitgeist of this particular era in U.S. history…only, it’s directed by a Canadian!
Silliphant’s screenplay fully acknowledges the inherent biases that can be so harshly engrained in certain communities, particularly where slavery was once a prominent industry. The white people of this region have not forgotten their perceived view of the black community as a collection of second-class citizens; nor have the black people forgotten the transgressions committed against them from innumerable members of the white community.
This racial dynamic is primarily accentuated by the shaky alliance between Tibbs and Gillespie, propelled by a palpably electric chemistry between Poitier and Steiger. Poitier is the most respected black actor in the U.S. of the time, having become the first man of colour to ever win the Oscar for Best Actor a few years prior. In In The Heat of the Night Poitier shows us exactly why that is, conveying Tibbs as almost Sherlockian; a man of great intelligence, decorum and pride, the latter of which is to a crucially human fault.
Impressive as Poitier is in this film, Steiger’s Oscar-winning performance is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the entire film, as the method actor perfectly encapsulates the jaded officer who is held back by his social leanings, but not necessarily held down by them. I would argue that audiences stand to learn most from Gillespie, as he is at constant battle with his Old-South hardwiring, showing bouts of great strength by defying those of his community in favour of whatever he holds to be true.
Although Gillespie is undoubtedly the most flawed of the two characters, where his surrender to racist urges make him initially problematic, but in a redemptive display sheds this stoic façade, admitting his admiration for Tibbs, only to chastise his pretentiousness in a deeply introspective scene between the two. This not only adds an unexpected layer of depth to who has become a sympathetic character in his own right, but caps off Steiger’s tour de force in a humanly affective manner, no doubt securing that golden statue in this one scene.
Both lead performances are underscored by Jewison’s deft direction, whose understanding of the screenplay is so comprehensively intuitive he can seamlessly shift the steadily accrued rhythm of a scene with a single word or sentence.
Where Tibbs first meets Gillespie is a great example, as the scene boils to the point where Tibbs, in frustration, reveals that he is a police officer, simmering the scene’s pacing before moving onto the next captivating moments. While the relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie is a consistently turbulent one, the longer it goes on, the more it comes off as tiringly regressive…but never quite redundant.
Such a creative choice is (generally) justified by Jewison’s realisation of a film that is ultimately not a denouncement of racism against the black community, but rather prejudice as a whole, best exemplified by Tibbs’ own clouded judgement towards a white cotton farmer.
Tibbs is nothing if not clinically pragmatic, but can nonetheless be blinded in the most egregious acts of racism, lashing out as a result. Jewison empathises with, but ultimately urges against such an impulse, advocating instead a measured approach that I believe alludes to the non-violent approach of the civil rights movement, which perhaps Jewison is suggesting could break the cycle of hatred; or, at least, attain the amicability found between Tibbs and Gillespie by the film’s close.
Jewison’s intention is never to overly romanticise or trivialise issues of race relations, but rather to convey the realistic empathy that can surely be found in one another. The themes of race and tolerance (or indeed intolerance) In the Heat of the Night are perfectly realised, having rightfully stood the test of time. Yet, when this is teamed with its display of sheer artistry in the craft of filmmaking, this is one film I find not only embodies its 1960’s social climate, but transcends it.