In the Heat of the Night shouldn’t be as timely and relevant as it still is. You’d think we could have moved beyond such levels of racism and prejudice, and yet, sections of society seem worse than ever before, and it seems to be both hidden and overt.
Featuring powerhouse performances by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, the film is based on the novel by John Ball. In the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, there’s been a murder. It’s never happened before, and the local chief of police, Bill Gillespie (Steiger) is at a loss.
But, they may have a lead, when one of his officers, Wood (Warren Oates) runs in an African-American, who is found at the local train station. Running him into the local police department, based more on his prejudices than evidence, everyone is shocked to learn that this man, Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is actually a police officer, and a top homicide investigator.
Against his better judgment, Tibbs helps out the police force in their investigation, despite having to deal with the racism and prejudice not only of his fellow officers, but the town, and those he’s investigating in his search for the truth.
Featuring a musical score by Quincy Jones, and a title track by Ray Charles, this Oscar winning film (Best Picture, Best Actor (Steiger, and Poitier didn’t even get nominated, ugh), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Editing) continues to be a fantastic, piece of cinema.
And while Steiger portrays the cop easily, working in and through his prejudices, it is Poitier’s performance that is truly overpowering, small looks that play across his face when he deals with those who hate him, judged solely on his appearance, and yet he has a level of control and quiet power, a dignity that raises him up over those who would bring him down.
How desperately does Gillespie and the rest of the force want Tibbs to solve this case? The dead man was bringing a factory to the town, which would help the community out, but he also promised to hire black and white workers, something the town may not want.
The whole case is a powder keg, and plays out in the relationship developing between the two officers. As Tibbs works to solve the case, the local law tries to play catch up while maintaining their authority, and the locals have to decide whether they are more interested in the truth or pursuing their prejudiced agenda.
Still so good. Still so powerful. And Poitier remains one of the greats!
The movie was such a success that it inspired a television series that debuted two decades later, but doesn’t compare to the original film, and the performances in it.