An African American police detective is asked to investigate a murder in a racially hostile southern town.
This film is relevant today. What’s sad is that it shouldn’t be. Yet, here we are.
A little background on the film:
We open up with a murder. The most important man in the small southern town of Sparta, Mississippi has been murdered. The town isn’t really equipped to do the hard digging that this case would entail, which is shown when they arrest somebody just because they had the dead guys wallet on him. Enter Mr. Virgil Tibbs. He’s merely passing through. That’s literally all this man wants to do, pass through this town. However, he gets arrested simply because he is a black man. It’s found out through some very intense dialogue that Virgil Tibbs is the top homicide detective in Philadelphia, and his captain has instructed him to remain in the town of Sparta, Mississippi to help solve this homicide case. What follows is a display of severe racism, and our main character of Virgil Tibbs deserves a goddamn medal.
Virgil Tibbs is played by Sidney Poitier and the police chief Gillespie is played by Rod Steiger. Both men give incredible performances but, I must say, I was more impressed with Poitier’s acting than Steiger’s. Don’t get me wrong, Steiger did a wonderful job. His character development was phenomenal. I just think Poitier’s delivery of his lines were better. It felt like there was more emotion behind his performance than Steiger’s.
This film, I feel, relies heavily on the dialogue. Thank goodness that it’s so well written. The scene that stands out the most to me, in regards to dialogue, is when Tibbs tells Gillespie that he’s a cop back in Philadelphia. It just felt so powerful, as does the “They call me Mr. Tibbs” segment of dialogue. I audibly said “well, goddamn” in my living room.
This film never blaringly states that it is about racism. It, instead, shows it in every social interaction, from dialogue to simple glances.
This film subtlety builds up to one scene, the scene that evokes the most emotion out of its audience. The scene where the character of Endicott, a rich white male, slaps Tibbs across the face for insinuating that Endicott murdered Colbert, and Tibbs slapping him right back. It’s a powerful scene. And it’s even more powerful when you put this film in the context of its era. In the Heat of the Night was released in 1967. Diversity on screen was few and far between. The Civil Rights Movement was still happening in the United States. This scene was a huge fucking deal. And, to this day it evokes strong emotions from the audience.
I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to watch this film. I have no clue. But, I’m so pleased that I finally did. So very pleased.