Why In the Heat of the Night (1967)? Because it contains one of the more powerful moments in cinematic history, but we will get to that in a moment. Some of you, perhaps (maybe?), might be thinking about the television show of the same name that ran from 1988 to 1995. The two do not bear a ton of resemblance to each other, outside of the titles, characters, themes, and settings. Okay, maybe that is a lot more than I realized. What I am trying to puzzle out is why the television show was made at all. Aside from the moment that I am teasing, there is not much more to recommend the cinematic version. And yet, twenty years later, somebody thought, heck, why not make a broadcast series. Granted, the movie did tackle a serious topic like racism, and did so at a time when the civil rights movement entered a transitional phase. As civil rights leaders like Malcolm X were assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meeting the same fate a year after the movie’s release, the non-violent phase of the struggle became more strident, to put it lightly, in its calls for change. Today’s film speaks to many of these issues.
When someone is murdered in Sparta, Mississippi, the setting for In the Heat of the Night, let alone a wealthy industrialist who is about to bring prosperity to a seemingly struggling Southern town, there is bound to be trouble. Because this is the South in the 1960s, when an immediate suspect is not found by the town’s police chief, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), in his initial search, the culprit is assumed to be African American. When one of Gillespie’s officers, Sam Wood (Warren Oates), finds a black man at the train station with what they assume is more money than anyone like him should possess, that man is arrested. He is taken to the station and questioned by Gillespie, who assumes that everything adds up to his department having their murderer. What changes Gillespie mind is the revelation that their suspect is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), one of Philadelphia’s top homicide detectives. All he wants to do is board a train and leave before any more trouble comes his way. However, when Gillespie phones Virgil’s boss, Gillespie’s Philadelphia counterpart requests that Virgil stay to help work on the case. At first, Gillespie’s latent racism makes it so that he does not trust Virgil. Yet, when Gillespie witnesses Virgil’s examination of the victim, and how the detective is able to conclusively refute some of the coroner’s conclusions, Gillespie decides their visitor could provide some valuable assistance. Unfortunately, this means Gillespie must not only investigate a homicide, but also protect Virgil from the racists in town, a task about which he is mostly ambivalent. Virgil does not help the situation either because he is used to a more receptive Philadelphia police force, and thus tends to ruffle bigoted feathers. His position is given some support, though, when Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant), the widow of the victim, threatens to withdraw her husband’s planned factory when it appears Gillespie’s police is botching the case. This emboldens Virgil to make his own accusations, and they lead him to the cotton farm (presented as a veritable plantation) of the next richest person in town, Endicott (Larry Gates). Fibers found in the victim’s car in Virgil’s estimation could only be found in Endicott’s green house, and he is against the new factory. And because Endicott treats people of color with a racism born of generations of people in his position, Virgil is eager for him to be the perpetrator. Unfortunately, Endicott is cleared, and Virgil and Gillespie are back at the beginning. Gillespie forges ahead with his own findings, believing Sam to be the killer when Virgil uncovers a predilection of Sam’s for passing by the home of a sixteen-year-old girl named Delores Purdy (Quentin Dean), and Gillespie receives news that a large sum of money had been recently deposited in Sam’s bank account. During Delores’ questioning, she reveals that she had been impregnated and is seeking an abortion from a woman on the black side of town, and she insists that Sam is the one who did this to her. Virgil, though, believes otherwise. Going to see the abortionist, a woman named Mama Caleba (Beah Richards), he learns that it is not Sam who is paying for the procedure but rather the local diner operator, Ralph (Anthony James). There is only one place a person in such a position would get the money for something like this, and that was by murdering a wealthy man. However, Virgil must now also fend off an angry mob, led by Delores’ brother (James Patterson), who is after Virgil for witnessing Delores’ lurid tale. What checks the tide of violence is Virgil convincing Mr. Purdy to look in Delores’ purse for the money. When he finds it there, as Virgil predicted, it convinces him that the black detective had been right. Ralph then shoots Mr. Purdy dead before being overwhelmed and arrested. He later confesses to the previous crime when at the station. With the case solved, Gillespie takes Virgil back to the train station and they say their goodbyes.
Racism is stupid, and it is incredible that a film like In the Heat of the Night, made in the 1960s, would underscore this fact to such a degree. There are two scenes that stand out in this regard. The first is when Gillespie begins making fun of Virgil’s first name, and asks what they call him back home. Summoning the strength of his convictions, he retorts with, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” It is a classic line, and one that resounds at a time when titles like that mattered, let alone the color of your skin. The second moment is when Virgil and Gillespie interview Endicott in the plantation owner’s greenhouse. It starts off pleasant enough, and the two have a coded discussion about the various plants around. When it comes to Virgil actually accusing Endicott, the latter slaps the former, and the former returns the gesture to the latter. There is a moment of stunned silence, and Endicott asks Gillespie if the police chief saw it happen and what is going to be done about it. Gillespie is equally thunderstruck and says that he does not know what to do, his indecision owing to his need for Virgil’s expertise. These two incidences say much about the changing racial character of the country at the time, though it is worth noting that the movie was not filmed in the South but rather the slightly more enlightened state of Illinois. In either case, I would like to take the time to point out that the Catholic Church in the United States was, in many places, at the forefront of the civil rights movement. There were priests and nuns who marched with Dr. King, and they were particularly drawn to his non-violent approach to societal change. Things began to change in the late 1960s, and the movie is evidence of this fact. Still, the Church’s commitment to the dignity of all people, with some notable exceptions of people not actually following Church teaching, is a bedrock of our Faith.
In the Heat of the Night is a piece of classic cinema with some great lessons. The racism does not come solely from everyone with a white face because Virgil has his prejudices, too. At the end of the day, prejudice prevents us from seeing other as God sees us: with the love and respect owed to all of His creations. That is something that Gillespie and Virgil must come to feel about each other. See it for these reasons, though know ahead of time that there is a brief moment of nudity to go along with the possibility of abortion.