There are some films that are made that are symbols of the era in which they were made, and ‘In the Heat of the Night’ sums up entirely the racial and social tensions present in America during the 1960s. It is not a preachy piece about race however, as it comes with a wonderful murder mystery which is equally as notable as the social aspects which it portrays.
Sidney Poitier is Virgil Tibbs, a black Mississippi-born detective working in Philadelphia. He goes to visit his mother in the southern state and whilst there, a rich, white tycoon is found dead. Race is enough for the local police to arrest the detective, although he is released when they find out about his profession. Rod Steiger is the Sheriff who has to then put aside his prejudice in order to let Poitier help his solve the murder.
It is difficult to discuss the mystery aspect of the film without giving too much away, but it is enough to say that it takes the viewer down a number of exciting twists and turns before revealing an ending that I think may just be the biggest surprise that I have ever seen on screen. The direction with the excellent script manages to keep the suspense throughout.
It is perhaps more important to comment on the racial aspects of the film as it is this that probably largely helped the film to win more than the murder story. There are countless films out their about racial prejudice that paint one sided characters throughout. Compare this to ‘Crash’ and the differences are remarkable. In ‘Crash’ all the characters have a place to play in the plot and there is no character development, as that would have halted the story. That is why ‘Crash’ is not a very good film. In ‘In the Heat of the Night’ the characters are so complex and interesting that they become believable people rather than just objects in a plot.
Tibbs has suffered from racism in his life. That does not make him into a bitter one-sided character, but instead he is balanced, poised, but has not shut these memories out of his head, and this shows. Sheriff Gillespie is even more interesting. He is bigoted and initially cruel, but the character grows in a believable way. Steiger was given the Oscar for his balanced and realistic performance.
Of all the Oscar winners that I had not seen before, I was most sceptical about watching this. I expected a dated and patronising film about stereotypical racism in southern America, but instead I was rewarded with a thoughtful and intelligent film with real feeling, a great storyline, and smooth direction that makes you feel how Mississippi was in the 1960s. Admittedly, my choice would have been ‘The Graduate’, one of my all time favourite films, but this is still a worthy winner.