On April 4, 1968, America experienced a truly dark day, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. His murder was so shocking and disruptive to life in the nation that, among other things, it led to the postponement of the Academy Awards. A few evenings later, when the show did go on, the big winner of the night was In The Heat Of The Night, which won five awards, including Best Picture.
In the Heat of the Night is a murder mystery set in Sparta, a fictional town somewhere in Mississippi. Police chief Gillespie heads the investigation and one of his officers (all of whom are white) has soon taken Virgil Tibbs, a black man traveling through town, into custody for the crime, an arrest obviously biased by race. The flimsiness of Tibbs’ arrest becomes all the more apparent when Gillespie learns that Tibbs, aside from obviously being innocent of the crime, is a respected and knowledgeable homicide detective in Philadelphia – whose talents his superiors in Philly have now offered to the Sparta police in their investigation.
The film is beautifully shot – the opening sequence is essentially a ride through Sparta with one of the police officers. It introduces the viewer to the town, set against music composed by legendary Quincy Jones (and with the inclusion of Ray Charles’ “In the Heat of the Night” to kick things off). We immediately get a sense of the town’s quiet yet seething rage, and the uncertain footing on which race relations stand. This is crystallized in some of the initial interactions between Tibbs and the residents.
At the core of the film is the fascinating relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie. Clearly, Gillespie can recognize within minutes Tibbs’ talent and ability. While he is deeply imbued in a racially stratified culture, at his core he is a cop – and he recognizes the professional acumen Tibbs possesses. The two are so on guard with one another, consistently sizing one another up. As I watched their terse exchange, I remarked that I was glad I had been socialized female – for at its core, this film is also very much about masculinity – its performance, its trappings and its shortcomings. In fact, I think it may be one of the greatest films addressing race and masculinity that I’ve ever seen – in no small part due to the nuanced and stellar interpretations of Sidney Poitier (Tibbs) and Rod Steiger (Gillespie). Continue reading