Synopsis: In Mid-20th Century America, a Black police officer from the North helps to solve a crime in a small southern town.
Woe be the stranger in a strange town. Especially if there’s just been a murder. This is the predicament Virgil Tibbs finds himself in when he is stranded overnight at a train station. The year is 1966 and he’s passing through the American South after visiting his mother. He has to wait at a little rural station for the train that will take him to where he lives up north. He knows better than to take a walk around because 1) it’s summer and he’s wearing a nice suit that would get soaked though with sweat in no time and 2) he’s a Black man in the Jim Crow* South.
Mr. Tibbs is played by one of the 20th Century’s great cinematic actors, Sidney Poitier, in an …uh, arresting performance. And that’s just what happens; his character is arrested at the Sparta, Mississippi train station, even though he’s just minding his own business.
Earlier that night, the body of a businessman, Mr. Colbert, is found off main street with a bashed in head. Local yokel police officer Sam (Warren Oates) radios into the station and his boss, Chief Bill Gillespie is quickly on the scene. The Chief is played by Rod Steiger. Get ready, because he’s electric in every scene.
Now, the Chief doesn’t have much experience with big city crime, but he’s determined to solve the murder and keep the peace. He has a couple of essential aids to get through his long days: sunnies and gum. When he drives out to interview suspects, he pops on a pair of aviator shades with bright lollipop yellow lenses, which, rather than protect your eyes like dark lenses, would actually intensify the brightness of the surroundings. But what a fashion statement. The Chief also has a seemingly endless supply of chewing gum. He smacks his gum quickly when he’s agitated or thinking over the crime details and chews slowly when the long, hot days tire him out.
The Chief wants to get on top of things right away and dispatches Sam to drive around town and see if anyone is wandering around with a bloodied club in hand. When Sam checks out the train station, he finds the Black stranger sitting on a bench and quickly arrests him. His evidence that Virgil committed the murder is that he has a fair amount of money in his wallet. This is the kind of crackerjack police work we’ll see more of as the movie progresses when various suspects are whisked in and out of the station.
Sam hauls Virgil into the station, past a few sweaty, gossiping cops and triumphantly presents the “killer” to the Chief. He’ll soon ascertain that Sam screwed up. He asks Virgil how he came to have so much money in his wallet– did he steal it? Offended, Virgil says that he makes $162.39 a week working in Philadelphia. Philadelphia, Mississippi? the Chief asks. When Virgil replies, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania! it’s as though a shot has been fired. Not only is this man Black, but he is from that miserable place known as the North, full of Yankees! Why these victors in the Civil War know nothing of Southern graces and nobility.
Now, if you were a northern moviegoer in 1965–Black or white– you’d probably be glad you didn’t live there because of lynchings and an impression of general backwardness. But what was life like in the small town South?
Well, the cinematic inhabitants of Sparta, Mississippi all do their best to cope with the heat of the days and nights as they go about their work. The makeup people must’ve been kept busy spraying the actors’ faces with water to simulate sweat, because every time there is a face close-up there are artful beads of water on foreheads. If someone is supposed to be really nervous, it looks like a glass of water has been splashed on their face.
There is a lot of drinking of cold soda. Finding a bit of shade outside or plunking yourself in front of an electric fan with your Coke (invented in Atlanta) or Dr Pepper (from Waco, Texas) seems to be the main way of coping in the heat. There is this one young woman in town, Delores (Quentin Dean), seen while Sam is on patrol at night, who likes to fling open the curtains of her place and drink soda in the nude. This seems a little boring. I mean couldn’t she at least go to a friend’s house once in a while to listen to records or something? But then again, at home she can cast sultry glances out the window in between sips from her soda bottle. Anyway, her home seems pretty well-protected because Sam is always slowly driving by.
By day and by night we see carloads of rednecks blazing around with their Confederate flag plates, trying to run Black folks off the road. At one point they even corner Virgil on foot at an old train depot. It’s four against one which doesn’t seem fair. Those rednecks sure do like yelling the N-word and shaking chains and crowbars at him. This does not seem to be the vaunted Southern Hospitality that I’ve heard tale of.
So, getting back to the Chief’s interrogation of Virgil at the beginning of In the Heat of the Night, Virgil reports that he is a police officer in Philadelphia and gives his boss’ phone number for verification. Since no one in town seems to have ever been north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the cops are more than a little skeptical. When the Chief reaches Virgil’s boss, he learns that Virgil is one of their top homicide detectives and that Virgil would be glad to help them with their murder case. Ha! Virgil wants to get out of town ASAP. And the Chief and the other cops don’t really know if they want this smart, proud Black man with the northern accent sticking around. But… the Chief does need to solve the case.
In spite of wanting to get the hell out of Dodge, so to speak, Virgil feels a responsibility to see justice done, so he stays. And he dives right in; examining photos, the body and the purported crime scene. He quickly makes amazing inferences based on a fiber here or a bruise there. And he’s doing all of this in a time and place without our 21st Century advantages. No cell phones, personal computers or DNA analysis. Hell, the AC unit in the Chief’s office isn’t even working.
But the biggest obstacle that Virgil faces is the racism all around him. The rednecks are always chasing him and there are white witnesses who won’t talk to him. (You have to get used to the old vernacular where Black people are referred to as Colored or as Negroes.) Thankfully, Virgil knows how to handle all sorts of people. To gain the trust of a local ignoramus and petty thief, he slyly chuckles at the man’s lowbrow humor and gets some important intel. And when a witness gets rude, Virgil makes their head spin with fast talk about the likely consequences of their temerity and then, in 1960’s speak, he pointedly asks: Do you dig? I gathered that this was not a question about whether a person gardened, but, rather, if they understood the severity of the situation.
One of the worst people that Virgil has to question is a local big fish, Mr. Endicott (Larry Gates). Virgil and the Chief drive out of town, past cotton fields with Black people laboring in a scene right out of 1860. Endicott lives in splendor, on a plantation that has obviously been in the family since antebellum times. When Virgil and the Chief arrive to question Endicott as to his relationship with the murdered big fish, they are ushered by an elderly Black butler to the orchid greenhouse where Endicott is tending to his flowers. He is haughty, but superficially polite. It quickly becomes apparent that Endicott doesn’t want to answer any questions from these peons. He begins a lecture on how he, as a white man, has the noblesse oblige to manage the Negroes around him because, much like his orchids, they can’t manage themselves.
Virgil has a great reaction, which I will not spoil for you. Suffice to say that he quickly puts the old racist in his place. Naturally, this enrages Endicott and you can see that he longs for the days when he could’ve had any Black person murdered by the overseer. And he actually says this! This puts the Chief in a tough spot because word soon travels to the mayor that Virgil is a troublemaker who needs to go, murder case or not.
Back and forth Virgil is ushered to the train station and then retrieved when the Chief, who recognizes Virgil’s excellent investigative skills, needs him to put one more piece of the puzzle together.
Sidney Poitier’s powerful performance along with Rod Steiger’s Oscar-winning performance get a lot of attention in film lore. But be assured, the mystery is really good too. It’s true that it’s somewhat dated by the reasoning and good intentions of the time which goes something like this: If people of all colors, could recognize our common humanity, like Virgil and the Chief have (finding common ground and developing mutual respect during the course of this murder investigation), racism would end.
I tried not to judge through presentism,** because the study of the propagation of racism through entrenched structures (redlining for mortgages, criminal justice policies, etc.) wasn’t something that was on the radar of the white general public in the 1960’s. Although, of course, people of color were talking about their experiences of discrimination throughout America.
So, yes, racism hasn’t been solved, but In the Heat of the Night showed a little bridge being built on film. And while the movie may not have increased recruitment of Black police officers in the Philadelphias of Mississippi or Pennsylvania, actor Sidney Poitier was opening doors for Black actors in Hollywood. Without Mr. Poitier–and other trailblazers like Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones — actors like Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o wouldn’t be enriching cinema today.
P.S. Academy Award winner for Best Picture (1967/announced 1968), Rod Steiger for Best Actor, Stirling Silliphant for Best Adapted Screenplay, Samuel Goldwyn Studio Sound Dept. for Best Sound and Hal Ashby for Best Film Editing.
P.P.S. Because of the potential for a hostile local reception, In the Heat of the Night was not filmed in Mississippi, but in Illinois. To give some perspective, the capital city of Springfield, Illinois is about 580 miles north of Mississippi’s capital, Jackson. In the scene where a man is running across a bridge from Mississippi to Arkansas, he’s actually running from Illinois to Missouri. But the river he crosses is the same: the Mississippi.
*Jim Crow– state and local laws throughout the South that enforced segregation and disenfranchised Black voters. After slavery was abolished in the United States in 1863, white supremacists were determined to continue oppression of Black people. Much like in South Africa, whites were a numerical minority in the Deep South and pursued numerous courses to maintain socioeconomic and political power. 1860 census records for Mississippi show the white population at 44.4% and the Black population at 55.3%.
** Presentism– Adhering to present day standards to judge attitudes of the past. Interestingly enough, part of the backlash against The Green Book winning the Academy Award for Best Picture (2018/ announced 2019) was its adherence to reasons for/solutions to racism based on what can be seen as dated concepts.