In the Heat of the Night, released in 1967, won five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Rod Steiger), Film Editing, Sound, and Writing for Adapted Screenplay. The film is based on a novel by John Ball. Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant, and Warren Oates star in the movie. Norman Jewison directed it. And, its number 75 on my AFI top 100 films.
Reading a little about this movie and all of the awards surprised me since I had never seen the film. I vaguely remembered a TV show called In the Heat of the Night, but I didn’t know it was connected to a movie. When the DVD arrived in the mail the Better Half asked what it was about. I shrugged and said I had to watch it from my list. I got the eye roll. We settled in and watched the movie.
It’s a mystery. Virgil Tibbs is a black man from Philadelphia who is passing through a small town in Mississippi. The night Virgil is sitting in the train station a white man is murdered. A police officer from the town discovers Virgil and immediately takes him to the police station thinking the case is closed. Obviously, a black man waiting at a train station in the middle of the night must have killed the rich white man.
Turns out, Virgil is a police detective. However, the police chief still calls Virgil’s boss to confirm. That’s when Virgil’s life gets more interesting since his boss in Philly instantly realizes that the police in the small Mississippi town are not equipped with investing a murder. He tells Virgil to stay in the racist town to help with the investigation. Not many people are happy about the situation, especially the residents of the town.
This is one of those films that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not going to claim I grew up in an area without racism, but I did experience a very liberal area. I would hear jokes and such growing up. However, I was lucky enough to live in a diverse area and for the most part everyone got along. So when I watch movies like this I just don’t understand how people can treat others like this. When Virgil is arrested at the train station I was thinking, “ You’ve got to be kidding. Why would a murderer sit in a public place reading a book? Wouldn’t he hide?” Also, when the cop orders Virgil into the police car, Virgil doesn’t say anything. He’s resigned to what’s going on. People should not be used to this kind of treatment.
I wish I could say that racism to this degree doesn’t exist anymore. Unfortunately I know that’s not true. I wish I could say that the American justice system has improved vastly, however, my time on a jury proved me wrong.
This is a powerful movie. Not only is the mystery gripping, but the exploration of racial tensions in a small town in Mississippi during the 1960s is eye-opening. If you have not seen the film, I recommend it. I will warn you, it may make you mad—at least I hope it does.
Up next is The Silence of the Lambs.