In the Heat of the Night is released | August 2, 1967
In the Heat of the Night beat out The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1968. The movie follows a black homicide detective from Philadelphia, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), who gets embroiled in a murder investigation in a small Mississippi town.
The local police chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), recruits a reluctant Tibbs to help solve the case after one of Gillespie’s officers wrongly arrests Tibbs for the crime. Throughout the film, the Chief’s desire to solve the homicide clashes with his own racism and need to be accepted by his town.*
While criticized for its trite presentation of racism, the movie was very much a picture of its time. Audiences were known to break out in spontaneous applause during one famous scene when Detective Tibbs returns a slap from a white plantation owner. It was ultimately filmed in Illinois because Poitier feared he would be targeted by white supremacists anywhere in the South. A filming session in Tennessee was cut short by unwanted local attention and Poitier was said to have slept with a gun under his pillow while on location.
The film still holds up today because of the crisp, concise script, the talents of Poitier and Steiger, and because at heart, it’s a good detective story. The two leads’ powerful performances carry the movie. In one iconic scene, Chief Gillespie uses a racial slur to mock the detective and asks, “What do they call you up there?” He receives an unflinching retort, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” In a poignant ending, Gillespie acknowledges his respect for Tibbs.
*For more information on the making of In the Heat of the Night, read Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.
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