In the Heat of the Night is 51 and still insanely innovative.
Never before had a big budget color picture been properly lit for an actor with dark skin — cinematographer Haskell Wexler saw that standard lighting for color film had a tendency to produce a lot of glare on those with darker skin complexions.
Hollywood, like any of a number of American institutions, is rather slow to react to social change, despite what its elite like to pride themselves on. Nevertheless, the entertainment industry is quite often at the vanguard of a lot of American institutions in terms of how fast they react to changing social forces (yet, not without the painfully slow qualities that just seem to be endemic throughout institutions in American history) like women’s rights — Mary Pickford, for instance, was the first actress to accept a $1 million contract in 1916 — gay rights, or, as is evidenced by Norman Jewison’s slow burning, southern fried murder mystery In the Heat of the Night (1967), the clamoring for freedom from African-Americans in the Civil Rights Movement.
The movie beautifully tells the story of Philadelphia homicide expert Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who gets roped in to a homicide investigation of a wealthy businessman bringing jobs to the small Mississippi town that the Detective is sitting in, waiting on a train home to Philadelphia, after seeing his mother in Brownsville, Texas.
The film itself was not shot on location in Mississippi because of the volatile situation in the political climate of the day: namely, the Civil Rights Movement and the very violent notoriety of the Ku Klux Klan in the state — the Mississippi Klan had long held the reputation of being one of the most violent factions of the group in the entire United States. In fact, Sidney Poitier refused to set foot in the deep south after he and fellow actor (and musician) Harry Belafonte were almost killed in Georgia by the Klan at an earlier date.
Jewison instead opted to film in Sparta, Illinois (southern Illinois), for the further reason that none of the towns street signs needed to be changed for Sparta, Mississippi (where the events play out). Still, the production crew had to film in Tennessee for the scenes at rich man Endicott’s (Larry Gates) cotton plantation. Poitier told Jewison he slept with a pistol under his pillow for the entire duration of the Tennessee leg of the shoot, which itself had to be cut short because Poitier was also threatened by local racist thugs when he was there.
Detective Virgil Tibbs is treated horribly from the very first scene where he appears, shortly after Deputy Sam Wood (Warren Oates) makes the initial discovery of the murdered rich man Philip Colbert (played in an uncredited role by Jack Teter). The racist deputy really does not know what to think of the well-dressed African-American man sitting in his town’s train station, so he frisks him and brings him to the town’s police station on trumped up suspicion regarding the murder.
Tibbs rather quickly dispenses with this initial harassment from the local keystone cops by showing his badge to sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger, who chewed so much gum in this role at Norman Jewison’s insistence that his jaw had to hurt, still this added an incredible further backwoods dimension to his character) and ultimately calling his chief in Philadelphia on the phone to prove it. It is in this phone call, that the chief basically loans Tibbs out to the local cops, despite the abhorrent treatment they still give him.
Tibbs is a ruthlessly analytical character who has a very back and forth relationship with his colleagues, especially Gillespie. He proves throughout the entire duration of the film that he has incredible acumen at what he does — not to mention nailing the quintessential bad-ass x factor which really hadn’t been applied to a black actor before the film, and, I can only imagine, was and is a hero to many that saw this movie because of that, and because he stands up for his dignity in the face of a seemingly endless barrage of racist abuse from his Caucasian counterparts. The most famous quote from the film, Tibbs shouting “they call me… Mr. Tibbs!” was in response to being called “boy” repeatedly by Gillespie and his underlings, after he showed them up using his superior knowledge of homicide investigation.
Still, this quote is actually not the part that stood out most to 1967 audiences when they first saw In the Heat of the Night. In the course of Philip Colbert’s murder investigation, Tibbs convinces Gillespie to take him to Endicott’s aforementioned cotton plantation after doing a little digging on Philip Colbert’s business entanglements. After Endicott realizes that Tibbs is questioning him (his false “southern courtesy” really adds a bit of a dense cloud to the character of Endicott), he gets very irate with Tibbs and slaps him. Tibbs’ retaliation slap to Endicott was unlike anything that had previously been seen in a big budget Hollywood picture — see that slap seen ‘round the world below.
Never had an African-American character exhibited such assertiveness on film. This historic slap was not in the original script either — Sidney Poitier insisted that Tibbs do this, and further insisted it be included in every print of the film, which, of course, it ultimately was — in all its audience-shaking glory.
In the Heat of the Night goes further still in its innovation in how it showed an African-American actor on film. Never before had a big budget color picture been properly lit for an actor with dark skin — cinematographer Haskell Wexler saw that standard lighting for color film had a tendency to produce a lot of glare on those with darker skin complexions. He thus toned down the lighting on Sidney Poitier, for vastly better results. This was most certainly a step forward in social justice in cinema (and justice for realism in and on film), yet it is still kind of sad that it took until 1967 to get it right.
In the many ways mentioned above, In the Heat of the Night is a groundbreaking film. It was also a watershed moment in cinema for a further, arguably greater, reason — its portrayal of a common situation transcending racial discord: Tibbs and Gillespie will become friends by the time this case winds down. In the process, the slow burn of this incredible film also delights and captivates in its dramatic structure, acting, and cinematography. Indeed, In the Heat of the Night was a pivotal, brilliant film 51 years ago. It certainly still will be in another 51 years.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.