In the Heat of the Night (1967) opens with an air of mystery, of outsiderness winding its way into the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, a place that right away seems heavy with a sense of what belongs and what doesn’t. As Ray Charles croons the film’s title song, images of a railroad crossing, tinged with red and blue lights, fill the screen. A train has just arrived. And a man, faceless, carrying a briefcase and already somehow marked by his difference, has just stepped off of it.
The images that immediately follow, with their emphatic sense of texture and temperature, prompt us to make inferences about where we are. It is a small, shaggy town, surely; otherwise, a cop on a night beat would have a better place to grab a bite than a nothing little diner plagued by flies and a stingy, cankerous keep—a telling detail in himself, the kind of homegrown grotesque that suggests that the danger we already sense, whatever it is, could be coming as much from within as without. This is a movie set on convincing us that the world it depicts—the American South of its historical present, where that latent danger, the intimation of racial conflict to come, is a fact of life—really exists. A patrol car making its rounds reveals Sparta to us glimpse by disquieting glimpse, the car’s headlights leading the way through the dust and darkness of the streets.
Director Norman Jewison was still in the first decade of his Hollywood career when he took on In the Heat of the Night. His paranoid comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, part of a two-picture deal with United Artists, had been a success the year before, and In the Heat of the Night was the immediate beneficiary. It was originally slated to be filmed on a studio lot; thanks to Russians, Jewison got the okay to film on location. And he also got his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, to do something he’d never done before: shoot in color.
In fact, In the Heat of the Night was filmed in Sparta, Illinois—not the South at all. Sidney Poitier, the film’s estimable black star, then at the height of his career, refused to shoot below the Mason-Dixon Line, and especially in Mississippi, on his last visit to which he and Harry Belafonte had had a run-in with the local Ku Klux Klan. Knowing that fact somehow adds to In the Heat of the Night’s sense of unsettling realism. And that is key for a film that otherwise often plays like a movie with genre on the brain. There is, of course, the mystery that Poitier’s character, the righteous Detective Virgil Tibbs from Philadelphia, finds himself obliged to solve for Sparta, but I can’t help but also notice certain western tropes piling up in the opening minutes, from Tibbs as the stranger who’ll bring justice to the community, to the Main Street that’s as eerie in its nighttime abandonment as any thoroughfare in a desert outpost—all that’s missing are tumbleweeds. Even one of the film’s most finely drawn characters—the big-talking good-old-boy chief of police Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger (he took home one of the film’s five Oscars for his performance)—fits into this reading as the amoral lawman whose own bias distorts his idea of what qualifies as justice.
“The refreshingly fiery Poitier was certainly not leaning on what was established about his image.”
But any suggestion we might take from such genre tropes that what we are about to see will be wholly familiar to us is, it turns out, something of a fake-out. The refreshingly fiery Poitier was certainly not leaning on what was established about his image—and for all the apparent joy Steiger takes in sinking his teeth into Gillespie’s juiced-up bitterness, the role defies archetype almost immediately by positing the chief as a decidedly complex character. In the Heat of the Night gets the rote pieties of a Hollywood message picture out of the way within the first twenty minutes, after giving us the setup: a murder is committed, and the black character from out of town is the immediate suspect. Guilty or innocent (but likely innocent), the typical Poitier hero would be forced to try to clear his name and, whether he succeeded or not, be redeemed as a symbol of injustice’s weakness in the face of godlike moral certainty.
But In the Heat of the Night has a different angle in mind. Its narrative doesn’t hinge on Virgil’s guilt or innocence in the central murder, not after the revelation that he is in fact a cop. Symbolically, he can’t have broken the law—he is the law. What the film is interested in is
the immediate tension between the professional authority that Virgil wields and who he is, or rather, the public’s understanding of who he can be, according to America’s strict conceptions of race.
Being a professional entails doing his job—which Virgil does better than anyone else in the film. There’s a sense in which that can be seen as a lazy rehashing of the old liberal Hollywood dependency on the unthreatening hypercompetence of morally upright blacks, but the film distorts that boring trope with a dose of class. Virgil isn’t merely a smarter detective than the men of Sparta; he, a black man, is better off and better educated. His class advantage is one of the unspoken but clear affronts to the white characters of In the Heat of the Night, and one of the funny little pivots the film makes away from the message-movie template. Virgil doesn’t exactly want anything to do with this town or its murder. He’s eager not to involve himself unnecessarily in the problems of whites, and to get back up north. On the other hand, he feels a certain responsibility to serve justice. Plus, as Gillespie reminds him, he’s under orders and has something to prove: “You’re gonna stay here if I have to go inside and call your chief of police and have him remind you of what he told you to do,” Steiger intones, memorably. “But I don’t think I have to do that, you see. No—because you’re so damn smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just gonna stay here and show us all.”
The legacy of McCarthyism was still fresh enough for the question of how to get away with making mainstream political art in Hollywood to feel a little uncertain at this moment. Alongside a movie it beat for the 1967 best picture Oscar, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—another, more typical, Poitier message movie—In the Heat of the Night has gone down in history as something of a win for white liberalism. It’s indisputably true that there isn’t a radical bone in this film’s body. But it’s worthwhile to ponder how Jewison’s film attempts to, at the very least, revise the ways a film might satisfy the cultural codes of liberal Hollywood.
Jewison and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, adapting John Ball’s 1965 novel of the same name with heavy input from Poitier himself, took care not to repeat what they understood to be the book’s conceptual flaws. By the time the film was released, the novel was already out of step with the times, its sense of the cultural divides at play not stark enough. In the book, Tibbs is a passive cipher, studiously professional in the worst social circumstances without much inner acknowledgment of those circumstances. He is not from the North; he’s from Pasadena, California. He does not talk back. He most certainly does not slap a white man. More than merely an avatar of black respectability, he is an avatar for an overbearingly symbolic form of black humanity that lacks the specificity it’d need to resemble genuine humanity.
Jewison and his collaborators upped the humanity, and the allegory. This, they decided, would be a North-versus-South story. It would be in part a battle of wills between a relic—a racist southern police chief—and an emblem of progress: an educated black professional, a homicide detective from Philadelphia. The layover in Sparta is for Tibbs—a transplant thanks, probably, to multiple generations of black migration north undergone to flee southern racist violence—an existentially unwelcome trip into an all-too-recent past.
“What appears, on its surface, to be a mere tale of black-and-white brotherhood is, from the outset, something more original.”
Which makes for a far more taxing, tangled-up drama of racial reconciliation than I’d tended to remember. Beyond its implications for Sparta’s black public, who were promised jobs that are now up in the air, does the murder of Colbert, the northern industrialist who’d been building a factory in Sparta, even matter, really? It’s not the most pressing source of suspense here—that is the question of whether Tibbs will survive this trip unscathed, given all the varieties of hostility he will encounter.
Virgil, his body and demeanor as trim and proper as the fine creases in his suit, is slicker than your average—cooler than Poitier had gotten to play before, with the notable exception of his white-T-shirt bad boy in Blackboard Jungle (1955). Thus what appears, on its surface, to be a mere tale of black-and-white brotherhood is, from the outset, something more original, because Poitier gets to be more original. The black-professional part isn’t new—he’d been playing those since the doctor in No Way Out (1950). What was new was this veneer of northern cool. What could be a story not too distant from, say, Poitier’s own escaped-convict trifle The Defiant Ones (1958, costarring Tony Curtis) gestures toward something far more modern and immediate.
Namely: actual racial intimacy. And the upsetting of old codes that Virgil, by virtue of his position as a detective, gets to do. Consider the scene in which, conducting his own examination of Colbert’s body after a botched attempt by the local coroner, he takes the corpse’s pale white hands into his own. The images are discomfiting; Wexler, a master of texture, closes in on those hands, black and white, filling the screen with their jagged contrast, Virgil’s hands moving in all their living, breathing freedom. That’s the operative concept here: freedom. Something the black man has that the white man, dead, does not—a distinction the other white men in the room, including Gillespie, are undoubtedly witnessing with the same myopic hyperfocus as the rest of us, and likely the same shock. Our eyes remain on those hands. Wexler follows Virgil’s hands as, with gentle authority, they travel up to Colbert’s face and then down to his shoes, which Virgil removes to examine his feet.
But that’s just the first such encounter. Later, Virgil will meet Colbert’s widow (Lee Grant) in Gillespie’s office, and it will play out as another story of bodies in space, this time with the fraught complication of gender. The Birth of a Nation, with its racist rape plot, comes immediately to mind. More pointedly, the real-life historical dangers of white women accusing black men and boys of rape or making threatening advances—Emmett Till being the example whose name we’re most likely to know—loom large. And so, seeing Virgil and Mrs. Colbert together, alone, in a closed room, with him reaching out to embrace her after informing her of her husband’s death, and of her throwing her hands up—out of racial fear? rejection of comfort?—makes the mind race. And the movie reminds us of why this should be so when, at its climax, Virgil has his hands on another white woman, this time as a result of her involvement in the crime, and he is met with a horrifying vision: a lynch mob, out for his blood.
We give films like 2017’s Get Out (with its explicit nods to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) credit for inventing, or at least giving a name to, the “social thriller.” But Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with its extraordinary anxiety over a white family’s reaction to their daughter’s black fiancé, was already, frankly, a social thriller. As is In the Heat of the Night, with these instances of black and white bodies colliding on-screen, dangerously, intimately.
Poitier, in his 2000 memoir The Measure of a Man, writes that In the Heat of the Night’s central ironies—a northern black man in the South, solving the case of a dead white man; a black cop outsmarting white cops; a black lead having the advantage in a class melodrama—arose from real-life social conflicts too complex to sit easily with contemporary black radicalism, on the one hand, and white liberalism on the other. It “didn’t come from unbridled rage any more than it came from polite submission,” he wrote. “Progress then and now comes from the collision of powerful forces within the hearts of those who strive for it. Anger and charity, love and hate, pride and shame, broken down and reassembled in an igneous process that yields a fierce resolve.”
And yet it’s the anger, the pride, and the reassembly that stand out most in this film. It’s the evocative power of Poitier’s performance, in particular, that makes In the Heat of the Night feel practically like two separate films, whose extraordinary double vision can only really be appreciated from a black perspective. Because, for all its advancements, In the Heat of the Night does not represent a true sea change; it still espouses reconciliation as a social priority—just ask James Baldwin, who, in his book-length piece of film criticism, The Devil Finds Work, likens the final scene between Steiger and Poitier on the train platform to a classic Hollywood “fade-out kiss.”
Baldwin is not wrong. But Poitier’s performance brushes up dangerously against such predetermined meaning, transforming itself into another object entirely: an artifact of the black double bind. The double bind of being beholden to liberal representation, for the sake of one’s career, while also trying to satisfy an oft-belittled, underserved, complex audience. Of playing a trope, however well-written, while trying to bring a real black rage, a simmering bit of metatext about the role itself, to the movie’s politics.
You can sum it all up in one line. It comes midway through, on a police visit to the mansion of the local bigwig, Mr. Endicott, who, unsubtly, runs a cotton plantation. “None of that for you, eh, Virgil?”—this is what Gillespie says, referencing the troubling scene, just outside their car, of lowlier blacks picking cotton. The scene was filmed on a real Tennessee estate and nearby cotton farm (for it, the only one in the film actually shot below the Mason-Dixon Line, Jewison was able to convince Poitier to travel to Tennessee for a couple of days). But you don’t need to know that to feel the question creep beyond the confines of Hollywood fiction to nudge at the fact of its black star, Poitier. “None of that for you, eh, Virgil?”: it could just as easily be a question about the real-life anonymous blacks playing those cotton pickers. None of that for you, eh, Sidney? From then on, Poitier and his career would live out the answer in all its double-edged complexity: That’s right.