The film opens with the discovery of a dead body by a police officer in the town of Sparta, Mississippi. The body is that of an industrialist who was about to build a factory in the area. Given the fact that the victim is a prominent figure, the local police Chief Gillespie (played by Rod Steiger) is in a hurry to solve this case. An African-American named Virgil Tibbs (played by Sidney Poitier) is suspected after he is seen at a railway station sometime after the murder. Gillespie is embarrassed when he learns that Tibbs is a police officer himself. Even though Gillespie is prejudiced against African-Americans, he has no choice but to seek his help when the widow of the dead man puts the pressure on him. As expected, a colored police officer’s presence is not welcomed by the white residents of this town. But he is determined to solve this case regardless.
Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night made a significant impact when it was first released. This was the time when the Civil Rights Movement was heating up and it was one of the few films to deal with the subject of racism boldly. The film was slightly instrumental in providing a push to the Movement. It featured two acting heavyweights, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, and benefited from the
assured direction of Jewison as well the compelling performances of the two leads. The film’s most iconic line comes when Gillespie asks Tibbs what he is called back in his hometown and Tibbs responds with: “They call me MISTER Tibbs!”
The dominant message in the film is that regardless of the race and creed of the people you are working with, when confronted with a tricky situation, you have no choice but to work together to overcome it. One of the most powerful and fittingly controversial scenes in In the Heat of the Night is when an African-American police officer (played by Sidney Poitier) slaps a suspect who happens to be white. This is quite a shocking scene when viewed it in the context of the era it is set in. This was something that was quite shocking and unimaginable. Poitier would go on to act in another film that dealt with racism in the same year, called Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. This film too, is a favorite of mine. It’s a relatively more pleasant film.
The most interesting thing about the film are it’s two main characters. Despite their obvious differences, both Tibbs and Gillespie share a mutual dislike for someone from the opposite race. They also treat each other with a certain sense of hostility
– the hostility that people normally show towards someone with a set of beliefs that are different from theirs. They see these flaws of theirs interfere with their work and realize that in order to solve the case, they have to put aside their differences and co-operate. The uplifting ending managed to put a smile on my face.