I was asked to write about the Oscar-winning film In the Heat of the Night, to say if I thought that it and some of its more dramatic scenes were still relevant today. I wondered at what my answer might be. I mean, how could a run-of-the-mill crime story written half a century ago still address the ills of such a vibrant culture, so aware of our conscious and unconscious racist, sexist, homophobic and ageist flaws? How could a movie that predates cellphones have deep insight into the economic divide that crushes the majority of workers in today’s world?
I hadn’t seen the movie in 48 years. Back then, most Northern Negroes (now called African-Americans), like myself, felt that Mississippi was akin to Nazi Germany. Bull Connor and George Wallace were our Stalin and Hitler. At that time, we cheered if a proud black man appeared in a short scene of a film, if the plight of racism was simply mentioned in passing. I remember as a child watching The Phil Silvers Show where there was one black male soldier in Sgt. Bilko’s barracks. That one man never spoke, that I remember, but he showed up with the rest of the men in almost every episode. I watched that show religiously, just to see an image of my people on the hallowed TV screen. Sidney Poitier broke that glass wall when he took center stage. He was that deep breath we had all been waiting for.
Those days of furtive glances of my people and others are over. From James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates, we have been exposed to deft interpretations of our culture and its failings. Our great thinkers no longer beg for equality from a people who don’t know their own history; now, we understand our splendor and beauty in the light of day. If this truth is only coming of age today, then how could a movie produced on a shoestring budget, a movie written and directed by white men, speak meaningfully to the depths of the black experience in this sophisticated modern age?
I did my due diligence. I watched the movie again. This was a singular experience; slowly I was borne down into the fevered nightmare that I and the whole nation had experienced half a century before. Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs was a proud black man who said things like “Keep cool, Harvey” and “Ya dig?” This Southern-born, Northern transplant was tall, articulate and beautiful — dressed in an impeccable suit. At times he was desperate, but never truly afraid. He was so cool under duress because he knew what was right, and that knowledge gave him certainty.
Rod Steiger’s Bill Gillespie was the sheriff. He was a redneck but an outsider to Sparta, Mississippi. Gillespie had enough of a modern mind to be able to tell that the insufferable black detective, lately of Philadelphia, was the only one who could solve the crime.
Together this unlikely duo went up against all the superstitious prejudices of the South, putting their lives and livelihoods on the line. In the end, both men discovered that their prejudices blinded them to truth. But they were woke enough to face their shortcomings and come to the right answers for them and their peoples.
Along the way, we are exposed to a world that was like prison for most poor whites and an entire population of the descendants of slaves. The night is filled with darkness, despair and desire. Poverty was the negative space that defined most people’s lives. The backstory is that a white man has come from up north to build a factory that will take the place of the cotton fields and bring some modicum of relief to the poverty-stricken Sparta. The white man is murdered, and that one ray of hope may very well disappear if the murderer is not found.
This belief in the North as the savior of the South in general, and of black people specifically, is a fallacy. Racism pervades the entire U.S.; it always has. Northerners like to believe that they never bought and sold living beings as if they were livestock, that they didn’t fabricate clothes for sale made from slave-labor cotton. When the U.S. government ordered desegregation, that bastion of Northern liberal sensibilities, Boston, came out with bats, knives and guns. I can’t blame a 51-year-old movie for not understanding a concept that many today still cannot comprehend.
In the Heat of the Night was the creation of an extraordinary confluence of talent. Under the watch of United Artists, Stirling Silliphant adapted John Ball’s novel into a tight screenplay. The brilliant Norman Jewison took the directorial helm. Ray Charles sang the song with the help of Quincy Jones. And finally, Poitier, Steiger, Lee Grant and others took the stage. What came into focus was pain: the pain of racism born of the atrocity of slavery; the pain of lust bottled up by jealous love; the pain of poverty lathered across the land like plague; the pain of loneliness and alienation in the long hot Mississippi night. This play of pain was unique when it appeared on American movie screens, but the underlying truths this story exposes resonate in any age when there is inequality, poverty and hatred based on greed and its attendant lies.
I use the words stage and play to introduce because the dramatic interaction of the characters is very much like a well-crafted play. We see not only the emotions but also the minds behind those urges. The white world and the black are not shown as monoliths. Each person has his or her character formed under the pressure of history. Just the notion of presenting black men and women fleshed out as three-dimensional characters in a mainstream film was revolutionary at the time. There is violence, of course, but this movie is about the passion, not the pornography, of pain. Lives are on the line, but, more importantly, the fate of the sould of the nation also hangs in the balance.
Taking all of this into account, it’s easy to talk about the relevance of the two most dramatic and telling scenes. The first is between Gillespie and Tibbs. The grizzled, gum-chewing police chief quickly gets frustrated with the arrogant boy from up north. Unable to restrain himself, the cop asks Tibbs what it is they call him. “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” Virgil retorts. This declaration is the heart of self-emancipation for black men, women and children from any age in America. It is a human being laying claim to all the rights of citizenship. He will not be insulted by ignorance, delusion or racism. He will speak truth not only to power but also to and for himself. This is the moment, whenever it occurs, when freedom becomes a reality for black folk. No bearded white man can grant our liberation; we must know it as well as we know the love of our children or the brilliance of the sun rising up against the darkness of night. I think I had a glimmer of this truth when I watched the movie in ’67, but the message was a little too sophisticated for me to understand back then.
The second scene is more physical. People call it “the slap,” but it is much more than that; it is a particularly well-crafted series of events that brings together four characters, all of whom see that this is a new day. Tibbs and Gillespie go to visit Mr. Endicott, Sparta’s wealthiest individual. Endicott’s cotton plantation is the area’s major employer. They converse with false civility for a while. But Endicott begins to see that the black homicide detective from Philadelphia has the impudence to suspect him of the crime. He confronts Tibbs, who admits (with some satisfaction) that he is indeed investigating. Endicott slaps Tibbs. Without the slightest hesitation Tibbs returns the slap. Gillespie is stunned, as is the short black butler who has just brought in a tray of lemonade. Endicott asks Gillespie if he saw what happened. “Yes, sir.” Endicott asks what he’s going to do and Gillespie replies, “I don’t know.”
That alone would be enough to go down in the annals of powerful scenes, but the drama continues. Tibbs storms out. Gillespie goes after him. The butler has a look of both indignation and confusion on his face. He goes without a word, leaving Mr. Endicott alone. The white gentleman farmer breaks down into tears of rage because he knows that his day is done.
You don’t have to be black in America to understand the simplicity of the act and the complexity of the response. You don’t have to be descended from slaves to feel the satisfaction of that second slap.
Many of the scenes in this film could be dissected to reveal a deep passion, the powerful drama of our history and, sadly, the world we live in today. There are moments when we are shown, in documentary fashion, the weight of the American economy on the backs of hard-working black bodies picking cotton in the heat of the day.
So, after all that, in an objective sense, is In the Heat of the Night relevant today? I suppose I could say yes or no, absolutely or absolutely not. But instead I’ll tell a little story that the film insinuates but does not declare.
Det. Tibbs meets various white men in his Sparta adventure. There is of course Gillespie, the senior police official. These two men have a deep connection; they are kindred spirits who will go on to make two sequels. Most other white men deeply resent and hate Tibbs. As a matter of fact, all the white men he encounters at first despise the uppity detective. But two change their tunes. One is Gillespie’s deputy, who was charged with statutory rape and murder; neither crime did he commit. The other is a particularly poor white boy who is charged with theft and murder. This man is also mostly innocent. Regardless, both men are thrown into jail. And both develop an affinity for Tibbs. They call him friend and brother when they find themselves incarcerated. In other words, they began to appreciate the expert detective when they are cast in the role meant for him and his people. These relationships give examples of Martin Luther King Jr.’s prediction that one day we will learn to honor everyone by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
That revelation is why this film will never grow old.
In the Heat of the Night is as much a part of American lore as any book or poem, racist superstition or anthem. It is the descendant of the institution of slavery, the Civil War, the cotton fibers in our clothes and that unique American notion that anything, anything, can be bought and sold. This film’s roots are firmly embedded in the spiritual soil of a country that has tried and failed again and again to detach itself from the clutch of an evil that taints not only our history but the chronicles of the entire world.
At the end of the Civil War, our history (black and white) was unceremoniously dumped into an unmarked grave so that our nation could get along with the business of world-building without guilt. No one wanted to know what it meant that this country had been built by African slaves and bathed in the blood of Native America. No one (at least not enough of us) wanted to shoulder the contradiction of a land of the free built upon the firmament of absolute subjugation.
Over the centuries, there have been many thousands of hot nights from Massachusetts to Mississippi where blood and tears blended, where rape was commonplace and where no one ever came to offer succor, much less release. And those nights are not over: Today, people of color languish in jails and prisons, low-paying jobs and schools that betray us, in ghettos and under continual police review.
Take, for instance, the case of the retired African-American tennis star, James Blake. He was standing out in front of a big hotel in midtown Manhattan in broad daylight when he was tackled, forced down on his knees and handcuffed by a plainclothes NYPD officer. There was no warning. Blake was mistaken for another man and treated like a black man in Mississippi 50 years gone.
Indeed, Virgil Tibbs might have as much trouble today in broad daylight as he did in the late-night train station in the 1965 novel or in the Oscar-winning movie. I believe that In the Heat of the Night can open people’s eyes to our shared history as much today as it did half a century ago.
Walter Mosley is the author of more than 50 novels, nonfiction books, plays and graphic novels, including the acclaimed Easy Rawlins mystery series. His most recent novel, Down the River Unto the Sea, published on Feb. 20.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.