The actor Sidney Poitier, who appeared in a number of groundbreaking films in the course of his long and illustrious career, has died at the age of 94.
The news made me revisit Norman Jewison’s 1967 crime drama In the Heat of the Night – both to watch the great man in action and to marvel that a film dealing so overtly with racism could have been made in 1967, let alone received the Oscar for Best Picture that year. It’s an extraordinary and enduring achievement, and feels freshly relevant in the context of America’s current divisions.
Do avoid watching the dreadful MGM trailer, which fuses all the shouty bits together in rather a crass way. The film is capable of significantly more nuance, as the outstanding scene below shows…
Here we see Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) – guilty of nothing more than waiting for a train to Philadelphia – being brought to the sheriff’s office in the town of Sparta, Mississippi on suspicion of having killed a businessman. Why? Because he’s black and has money in his wallet, which strikes the white arresting officer as a category error. The push-and-pull of Tibbs’ relationship with racist Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger), who quickly realises he’ll need the black man’s expertise to solve the murder, is immediately on display. The two deliver a masterclass in acting to the fortunate audience.
The film is an adaptation of John Dudley Ball’s 1965 crime novel In the Heat of the Night, which won the 1966 Edgar Award for best debut by an American author and was the first in a series featuring homicide detective Virgil Tibbs. Ball worked for a while as a deputy in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office and clearly drew on this experience when writing the novel, which rings true both in terms of police procedure and law enforcement working culture.
The plot of the novel differs from the film in some respects: Tibbs is from California rather than Philadelphia, the murder victim is an Italian-American conductor organising a music festival in the town, and there’s a storyline involving policeman Sam Wood which doesn’t completely make it into the film. But lots of the film dialogue is taken directly from the novel, such as bits of the exchange between Tibbs and Gillespie in the scene above, and the iconic line ‘They call me Mr. Tibbs’.
The novel also does something extremely valuable: it gives us access to the minds of Gillespie, Wood and the other townsfolk, so that we can observe the workings of racist thought processes up close – along with the strategies Tibbs employs to overcome the many obstacles placed in his path.
In the Heat of the Night does fall down in one key respect: its depictions of gender and class are often stereotyped. But the novel is still very much worth reading and is widely available, most recently in the handsome 50th anniversary Penguin Modern Classics edition.
I’ll leave you with Ray Charles singing the soulful, gospel-inflected ‘In the Heat of the Night’ (Quincy Jones/Marilyn & Alan Bergman), which plays during the opening credits of the film. Thank you, Mr. Poitier.