Black Detetctive, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is entangled in the messy race relations of Mississippi in the South when he’s arrested for the murder of a white businessman. He was waiting for the next train back to Philadelphia. When local police chief Gillespie finds out Tibbs is Philly PD’s number one homicide expert, he asks for help, begrudgingly. The victim was Mr Colbert who had come to build a new factory. Those closest to him accuse Endicott (Larry Gate), the most powerful man in the county and the one with most to gain from the murder. Tibbs’ life is more endangered the longer he stays in the South, but he holds his resolve until the killer is found.
“They got a murder on their hands … they don’t know what to do with it” is the film’s tagline and it’s bloody brilliant. It’s 1967 and you have a murder on your hands. You find a black man sitting in a train station minding his own business. So, what do you do? Pin it on the black man, job done. Or so you think. If only it was as simple as that. Pinning a murder on the number one murder expert in Philadelphia PD is a nonstarter. The second tagline is “They’re going to pin something on that smart cop from Philadelphia … maybe a medal … maybe a murder!” With the dialogue’s style and the film’s depiction of race, you couldn’t ask for a more 60s film if you tried.
To see why the white characters in this film are so hostile towards Tibbs, you have to understand what occurred in the early 60s. The Civil Rights Act (1964) was passed which outlawed discrimination based on colour, sex, religion or national origin. Then in 1965 came the Voting Rights Act which stopped voting offices from preventing people from registering just because they were of colour. Jim Crow Laws were only abolished in 1965. In 1967 when this film was released and presumably set, the effects of those laws were only beginning to be felt, especially in the South, after one hundred years of Jim Crow Laws and two hundred years of slavery before it.
This small town in Mississippi would have a new voting population which would made life harder for the white society. It’s a new variable to take into account. They may not be the majority but there’s enough to make a difference and have a voice in the election process when it comes to voting in political elections as well as when it comes to voting in a new sheriff. Sheriff Gillespie seemed fairly reasonable in comparison to his deputies, as they were not. So when a rich a white man is killed, Warren Oates (Sam Wood) arrests Poitier without a blink of an eye. He’s a black face in a southern town, so Oates says two plus two equals five. He did it because he’s black, not because he did it.
Tibbs and Gillespie are both forced to work through their prejudices. How they see each other helps the other to solve the mystery and getting passed their prejudices is what ultimately solves the murder. The white sheriff must work with the black detective for the greater good which sends up a thread of flares about universal truths on race but the last scene was the cherry on the cake. I’ll get to that later. This film won five Oscars with Steiger (On The Waterfront) winning Best Actor, though Poitier should have gotten one as well. They needed each other. Steiger needed Tibbs’ skills whilst Tibbs needed Steiger to stop the the town racist’s from hanging him from the nearest tree.
The film concludes with “the kiss”, and in many romance dramas the lovers kiss and drive away into the sunset. Not in this police drama. As Poitier gets onto the train, Gillespie hands him his case, shakes his hand and says “Thank you. Bye bye” and starts to walk away but turns back and says “Virgil! You take care, you hear?” then Tibbs replies “yeah” and that’s The Kiss. But this specific fade-out kiss which was common in classic American cinema did not speak of love or sex, but more so about forgiveness or reconciliation, so the white world could feel less guilty of its treatment of black people, regardless of whether we’re talking about slavery or Jim Crow America.
In the end, after all is said and done with the two hundred year history of racial injustices swept under the carpet, Tibbs and Gillespie say goodbye and resume their opposite lives with them both knowing a little more about how the other half live. With five Oscars to its name, brilliant performances and thought-provoking themes, In The Heat of the Night is certainly timeless but still timely, as history repeats itself once more.