Set in Sparta, Mississippi, but filmed mostly in Sparta, Illinois, and Dyersburg, Tennessee, the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night won five Academy Awards and presented an important view of both racial tensions and the potential for human respect in a 1960s Mississippi torn by conflict over civil rights. The film’s source is John Ball’s novel In the Heat of the Night (1965), winner of an Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel. At the core of both the film and the novel is the dramatic relationship between Virgil Tibbs, a sophisticated black homicide detective from outside the South, and Bill Gillespie, a shrewd, small-town white sheriff, who eventually come to work together to solve the murder of a prominent citizen.
The police take Tibbs into custody because he is black and a stranger. Gillespie learns that Tibbs is a police officer and then is pressured by a relative of the murder victim to ask Tibbs to help find the killer. Outraged that a black man is involved in the investigation, members of the town council and a group of young punks harass Gillespie and Tibbs, seeking to get Tibbs off the case and out of town. Both men are proud, willful, and despite their prejudices intelligent enough to know that they need each other to solve the case. Much of the story revolves around the two men’s struggle to work through their difficulties and achieve their goals. In the process, they not only solve the crime but earn each other’s respect.
In the film, directed by Norman Jewison, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger play the roles of Tibbs and Gillespie. Both actors give outstanding performances: Steiger received the Academy Award for Best Actor, and Poitier won much praise across the country. The New York Times, for example, declared, “It is most appropriate and gratifying to see Mr. Poitier coming out at this moment of crisis in racial affairs in a film which impressively presents him as a splendid exponent of his race.” The film also won the Oscar for Best Film (beating out Bonnie and Clyde; The Graduate; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, another Poitier film concerned with racial issues; Cool Hand Luke; and In Cold Blood) as well as Academy Awards for its screenplay, sound, and editing.
Three significant changes in the screenplay sharpen the film’s focus on civil rights issues. First, in the book, Tibbs is from Pasadena, California, while in the movie he is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a shift that highlights the North-South tensions over race. Second, the film’s murder victim is from the North and plans a factory that will economically enhance the town but also will employ both blacks and whites equally. In the novel the victim is a music impresario whose music festival will save the town’s economy. Third, and most significant, the book is set in South Carolina, whereas the movie is set in Mississippi, which had become the center of the racial conflicts that beset the country in the 1960s.
The Time magazine review of the film states that In the Heat of the Night shows “that men can join hands out of fear and hatred and shape from base emotions something identifiable as a kind of love.” On the film’s thirtieth anniversary, Salon said that its “message was profound: that education, intellect, decency and elegant self-comportment are the surest and best ways to eradicate racism.”
- Bosley Crowther, New York Times (6 August 1967)
- Mark Gauvreau Judge, Salon.com website, www.salon.com (1998)
- Time (11 August 1967)