In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

written by Stirling Silliphant

based on the novel In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

directed by Norman Jewison

When Sidney Poitier was offered the role of detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night, the script had a scene in which Tibbs gets slapped by a racist plantation owner. Poitier said he’d accept the role, with one condition: He had to slap the prick back. He did… and with it made history as a fictional black character standing up to prejudice, a strong and unequivocal nod to the then ongoing Civil Rights Movement. The moment is unforgettable, but the rest of the movie is equally good, both as a whodunit – Tibbs is passing through a small town in Mississippi and has to join forces with a bigoted white police chief, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), to solve a murder – and as a fascinating character piece.

There is nice depth to both performances: Tibbs is logical and rightfully indignant, but he’s also a bit of a hothead whose own racial stereotyping momentarily blinds him as to the crime’s real culprit; Gillespie, who starts by calling Tibbs a “nigger boy,” reluctantly comes to accept him as an equal. In fact, it’s Tibbs who serves as a catalyst for Gillespie – and by extension, the town and America itself – to start breaking from the past. When the plantation owner, having just been humiliated by Tibbs, asks Gillespie what he’ll do about it, the astounded chief simply answers, “I don’t know.” And later, when Tibbs is terrorized by a gang of thugs, Gillespie comes to the man’s aid. Mind you, he’s not happy about it. But it’s the right thing to do.

Tibbs and Gillespie eventually bond over the fact that they’re outsiders in a community that will do anything to maintain its status quo (sadly, 55 years later, many people across the United States still cling to the same repellent notions). Sharing a bottle of bourbon, they talk about their lives, and at that moment they are the same: Tired, stressed, lonely humans. Change is a slow, painful slog… and sometimes it starts with a good slap in the face.

Rating: ***

Carlos I. Cuevas