Making the Grades
In one particularly prickly dinner scene in the 2013 movie The Butler, the character Cecil Gaines praises the film In the Heat of the Night. For him, Sidney Poitier’s role as a big city detective who solves a small town crime proves that African Americans were starting to be recognized for their talents. Cecil’s son disagrees.
Poitier himself might have wondered how much was really changing in the racially divided America when he accepted the role of Virgil Tibbs in the 1967 film. He made it clear to Director Norman Jewison that he would not work in locations below the Mason-Dixon Line. He had good reason to worry. According to a book by singer Harry Belafonte, Poitier was with the performer when the Ku Klux Klan nearly killed the pair while they were in Greenwood, Mississippi. Jewison agreed to the terms and had the production shot in Illinois. Later however, the crew and actors had to move to Tennessee for a scene of Tibbs driving past a cotton field. There again filming had to be cut short because of threats.
In the movie, Poitier plays a Philadelphia policeman who is wrongly accused when a murdered man is found in the streets of Sparta, Mississippi. The local law officers, looking for someone to blame, find the well-dressed black man waiting at the train station and instantly arrest him. Only after they discover their suspect is actually a respected officer do they let him go. Once released Virgil is ready to get out of town, but his boss suggests he stay and help find the real killer.
Virgil is the last person Chief of Police Gillespie (Rod Steiger) wants assistance from. But this is the first murder he’s dealt with and it is soon obvious his clumsy detective work won’t lead them to the culprit. Still, the distrust between Gillespie and Tibbs is palpable from the get go.
In the Heat of the Night won five Oscars including a Best Actor in a Leading Role for Rod Steiger and the Best Picture award. However, the Academy Awards had to be postponed for two day because of the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King.
While the film reflects the tension that was rampant at the time of its production, it also gives a glimmer of hope for the future. Gillespie is a stereotypical small town Southern sheriff. Tibbs views the locals with a certain superior air. Yet over time these two law officers gain at least a respect for one another. Best suited for teens and adults, In the Heat of the Night addresses racial divisions just as powerfully today as it did when it débuted.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about In The Heat of The Night.
How does this film reflect the racial tensions that the country faced at the time? How did attitudes toward blacks differ in the north and the south? How did the actor Sidney Poitier help change the public’s attitude toward black actors?
Is racial profiling still a problem in policing? What other stereotypes may impact a police investigation?
How do the attitudes of these two police officers change as they work together?