Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night

I was a newspaper boy in the late 60’s.  This meant that it was my responsibility to deliver a lot of bad news.  The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, these were all things I learned about as I walked from house to house.  The one constant, it seemed, was the racial unrest that underpinned every aspect of our lives during that turbulent decade.

My hometown, Rochester, NY, was not spared any of this.  Riots broke out in 1966 and the embers of that burned off and on for the next three years. By the summer of 1967, my morning and evening responsibilities filled me with this news.  My off hours were frequently spent in the heightened unreality of the movies.  Up until this particular summer, the movies coming out painted a picture of a world that was made up in equal parts of oversexed spies, snarling G.I.’s, scantily clad women and ring-a-ding swingers leaping from martinis to bed.

But titanic changes were in the wind.  The death of the Production Code in 1966 was a clear signal to filmmakers that the time had come when they could finally take the gloves off and start creating works that cast an adult and critical eye on our society. By mid-1967, the floodgates were beginning to open.

Given all that was going on at the time, it was only logical and right that filmmakers would turn that gaze to America’s complicated racial history.  First out of the gate was a major stumble.  Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner removed all the sting from its tail by making its story of an impending interracial marriage free of anything like the prejudice a similar couple would have faced in the real 1960’s.  Who, after all, could object to having Sidney Poitier as a son-in-law, especially when he plays a brilliant doctor, humanitarian and Nobel Prize nominee?  Jordan Peele’s much later Get Out brilliantly set this narrative on its ear.

Next out of the gate was quite different and much better.  Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night is an intricately constructed cheat – and I mean that in the best sense of the term.  On the surface, it is a relatively straightforward murder mystery.  Colbert, a wealthy northern industrialist, is murdered in a sleepy southern town.  Who killed him and why, the fundamental questions of most thrillers, are merely a stepping off point for this story of a modern civil war and the cancer of inbred racism.

Virgil Tibbs (Poitier again), a highly respected Philadelphia homicide detective has the bad luck to be sitting in the Sparta, Mississippi train station on the night that Colbert is murdered.  His skin color makes him the obvious and only suspect.  When Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), the local sheriff, must confront the fact that this particular black man is no murderer, he is also forced to swallow his pride and let Tibbs assist in the investigation.  These two very unlikely and in many ways equally racist men must find a way to work together and, if possible, an avenue to mutual respect.

The residents of Sparta are all victims of racism, not because their race has been used against them, but because they are the products of a long held belief in their superiority as white people.  The town leaders operate through hatred without any idea that it is just that.  They simply assume that they are right because they are white.  Tibbs is a jolt to their system.  He is well educated, professionally dressed and, most important, not afraid of them.  Trapped in the middle is Gillespie.  He is no less racist than his neighbors – in fact, it is made quite clear to him that maintaining his job means maintaining his attitudes – and yet he must work with a black man that he grudgingly and angrily realizes is his intellectual superior.

One of the unique aspects of In the Heat of the Night is the way in which it constructs the relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie.  Unlike Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier’s character here is hardly a paragon of perfection.  He sets off on a path to take down Endicott (Larry Gates), the wealthy white man who acts as plantation boss to the town.  It is Gillespie who has to point out the hypocrisy of Tibbs’ quest:  Just as he was pursued because of his skin color, Tibbs is after Endicott because of his.  This is neither the tale of a “magical Negro” nor a “white savior.”  These are two men who have had their hatreds bred into them and must now deal with their mirror image.

The confrontation with Endicott also gives In the Heat of the Night it’s most electrifying moment.  When Tibbs has the temerity to explain to the white man that he is a suspect, Endicott slaps him.  Reflexively, Tibbs slaps him back.  It is one of the most memorable moments of my moviegoing life: sitting in a theater in a city recently wracked by riots and seeing this happen.  To this day, I have never heard a louder gasp from an audience.  It felt like the entire room levitated. 

The making of In the Heat of the Night was an object lesson in the need to do it.  Jewison had wanted to shoot it in Mississippi.  When word went out that they were going to do it in that state, Poitier received multiple death threats and refused to go.  Instead, the film was shot in the southern Illinois burg of Sparta and the name of the town was changed in the script to match the signs.  The location change brought only an illusion of safety.  Threats were constant and several of the scarier moments were written into the script.

Poitier brings dimensions to Tibbs that remove any taint of saintliness from the character.  The jewel in this crown, though, is Steiger.  Initially based on the notoriously racist sheriff “Bull” Connor (then very much in the news), Steiger peels away at Gillespie scene by scene to reveal the insecurities and loneliness that plague a man whose racial attitudes are more reflexive than felt.  The two actors were offered a then-unique opportunity to use improvisation in a scene at Gillespie’s house.  The result is a surprisingly emotionally naked moment that removes the characters from the plot and allows us the opportunity to look inside them. 

I have returned to In the Heat of the Night many times over the years.  While part of this comes from the fact that it is an exceptional film, I always hope to see that it has dated.  Sadly, it has not.  It is as fresh and relevant today as it was in 1967.  That is a great compliment to the film, but a sad commentary on our times.