When a Chicago businessman promising to bring jobs to a dying rural town is murdered, the local police chief and a hot shot city detective are forced to team up to solve the crime. While the plot is familiar to the point of cliche, not much in the last half-century of multiracial buddy cop movies will prepare you for In the Heat of the Night, Norman Jewison’s 1967 police procedural cum race allegory. In the hands of less capable actors, this film could have been a clunky parable on 1960s race relations. But Sidney Poitier’s elegant erudition and barely contained anger and Rod Steiger’s unexpected shrewdness and surprising vulnerability make this a riveting film that has special resonance in a post-Charlottesville society.
Poitier plays Philadelphia’s top homicide detective, Virgil Tibbs, who’s passing through town after visiting family. He’s tall, slim, educated, and well dressed. This is a stark contrast to Steiger’s Bill Gillespie, a fat, rumpled, gum-chewing chief who doesn’t have the support of his officers nor his town. This sounds like the setup for a comedy, but Jewison doesn’t give us the relief of laughter. The film is filled with tense silences and curt exchanges.
The silences and racially charged exchanges culminate in one of the most infamous scenes in American cinema. Despite the chief’s reluctance to question the most powerful man in the county, Gillespie drives Tibbs up to meet Eric Endicott, owner of a cotton plantation straight out of Gone with the Wind. Tibbs gazes out the window, watching black sharecroppers picking cotton in an uncomfortably antebellum tableau. “None of that for you, Virgil, eh?” says Gillespie, but it isn’t a question.
The irony hangs in the air all the way through Tibbs’ chat with Endicott but morphs into something more menacing after Tibbs asks if the victim has been on Endicott’s property. Endicott’s reply is a backhanded slap. Quicker than thought, Tibbs returns the backhand with additional force, staggering the old man. Gillespie’s eternal gum chewing abruptly stops, and he straightens up in disbelief.
All eyes turn to Gillespie, expecting the chief to fulfill his traditional role as the enforcer of Jim Crow, but, incredibly, Gillespie does nothing. And without his hired muscle, Endicott crumples, his eyes filling with tears. His final words to Tibbs, “There was a time when I could’ve had you shot,” are less a threat than an old man’s realization that his time has passed.
This scene famously wasn’t in the original screenplay, but Poitier insisted on being able to hit back. In a time when an NFL player taking a knee during the national anthem results in widespread pushback at all levels of American society, the sight of an African American exchanging blow for blow in front of an armed white police officer is still a radical and powerful moment.
In the Heat of the Night screens at the Michigan Theater November 13.