The 1968 Academy Awards was probably the most important year for film production, rivaled by the heralded “best year in cinema” works of 1939. The Best Picture nominees of ’68 were a mix of old-guard, big budget family features, and independently financed productions made by young auteurs bucking the Production Code and the Hollywood Studio system. (The amazing book, Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris provides a deep exploration of the films from 1967/68 if you want to know more). Somewhere in between those two modes was In the Heat of the Night, the Best Picture winner for 1968. A ground-breaking take on racism fused within a police procedural, In the Heat of the Night is a biting social commentary as well as a compelling murder mystery.
When a local man is murdered in the small-town of Sparta, Mississippi, Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is forced to investigate the case alongside the backward, racist police department. He’s paired up with stodgy police chief, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), who slowly comes to the realization that his view on race might be out of date.
In the Heat of the Night remains a landmark film for several reasons: It was the first time a major Hollywood production, funded by a studio, tackled the concept of racism, and in 1968 to boot, the bloodiest year in the struggle for Civil Rights. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Rod Steiger, although the fact that Poitier wasn’t even nominated leaves you to question how “progressive” the Academy truly was. Considering the Academy was dominated by white, male voters, this was a fairly controversial win at the time and a shift away from safe family movies garnering acclaim (Doctor Dolittle was nominated in the same year).
For such an explosive film unleashing a powder keg of changes within Hollywood, it would make sense the movie is equally incendiary. Events happen on a hot summer night in Mississippi where everything, including the leaves, pop in fiery reds and yellows waiting for that match to ignite the entire town. The “match” is Detective Virgil Tibbs, hauled into the police station while he’s waiting for a train (his numerous attempts to escape the town and his continuing failure to do so is a running gag). From there, he’s tasked with working alongside cops who continually belittle him, verbally and physically.
In a year where slavery has been explicitly detailed in 12 Years a Slave, it’s shocking to watch the subtle, common-place elements of racism director Norman Jewison explores. To the people of Sparta, calling Tibbs “boy” or the n-word is as common as breathing. When Tibbs and Gillespie go to visit a potential suspect who runs a cotton plantation, the audience (and Tibbs as a surrogate) are flummoxed that, in 1967, African-Americans picking cotton is still a way of life. When Gillespie turns to Tibbs and reminds the young man that he’s never been forced into such degrading work, there is a brief moment of relief and admiration that, in some small way, there is a shift towards change. Of course, you wouldn’t notice that by the various people who resist Tibbs’ help or wish him dead.
Sidney Poitier is a cultural icon of the period, and much ink has been spilled on whether he’s a hero for African-Americans or just a pawn for white audience consumption. Regardless, I’ve always enjoyed Poitier’s work and think he’s fantastic here. It’s a shame he failed to secure an Oscar nod, but again it’s emblematic of the Academy more than anything else. Tibbs keeps his cool far longer than I would in the situations he’s placed in, and even when he’s smacking a man in the face he’s the epitome of class. The movie never stops to have a discussion about racism in a “More You Know” way. Instead, the audience feels for his character and the crap he has to put up with. His desire to get out of the town is an attempt to return to civilization. To him, and the audience, it’s astounding places are still so backward (and even in 2014 there are still places like Sparta).
Rod Stieger is also amazing as the curmudgeonly Captain Gillespie. The movie makes an intriguing comparison between the two police officers; Gillespie isn’t respected by anyone in the town, including his own officers in a smaller version of the oppression Tibbs feels. It comes off as a forced way for white audiences (possibly those in the South) to understand Tibbs’ oppression, and thankfully it isn’t harped on too much in the scheme of things. The harshest statement is Gillespie’s resentment of Tibbs’ respect in Philadelphia where he makes more money, is more intelligent, and is a more respected figure. Gillespie realizes respect isn’t given out because of skin color, but hard work. The ending is a bit of a letdown building towards a grand crescendo only to devolve into the reveal of a minute character being the murderer. Maybe I just expected one of the more obvious characters to be the killer, but the final ten minutes take a wide swing into a plotline that never feels fully developed.
The Blu-ray is part of Fox’s roll-out of a few MGM titles they own and it’s great. The main bonus feature is an audio commentary with director Norman Jewison, Haskell Wexler, Stieger and Lee Grant. It’s a fantastic group assembled and each has their individual takes on the movie, from the directing (Jewison), to the photography (Wexler) and the acting (Stieger, Grant). This isn’t necessarily a full commentary where everyone is in the same room; it’s individual interviews spliced together with Jewison’s recording being for an earlier DVD release. It is a fantastic assemblage with Jewison giving a broad overview of every facet of production and the latter three discussing performances or particular shots. Taking into account Stieger is no longer with us, this was great to hear everyone’s individual opinions. There are two additional featurettes: “Turning Up the Heat: Movie-Making in the ’60s” and “The Slap Heard Round the World.” Each features Jewison, Wexler, producer Walter Mirisch, director John Singleton, and a few academics discussing the movie’s place in history and its significance with regards to race relations. Finally, a theatrical trailer for the movie is included.
In the Heat of the Night aired last night on TCM in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. day and I didn’t plan on coinciding reviews. Thankfully, Fox’s Blu-ray and TCM continue to showcase the power of this movie. In the Heat of the Night is a compelling crime drama, but it’s even more effective as a commentary on race relations in the late 1960s; it’s power isn’t diminished in 2014. Sidney Poitier gives the performance of his career and alongside Rod Stieger they create a blistering experience.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.