Short Movie Review: In the Heat of the Night

Norman Jewison’s Academy Award-winning classic is a story about racism in the south, set against the backdrop of a murder investigation. Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs (Sydney Poitier) is passing through the small town of Sparta, Mississippi at the time of a murder. Virgil reluctantly agrees to stay and help Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) solve the crime, despite—or perhaps *because* of—the blatant bigotry he encounters. As much as you’re encouraged to feel sympathy for Virgil, a black man beset in the deep south, he’s no saint: he’s stubborn, arrogant, and frankly, kind of a know-it-all. And Gillespie pegs him when he points out that Virgil can’t leave town, because he wants to show up Gillespie and the rest of his redneck police department. There’s no question that Poitier is a great actor, but Steiger provides him an excellent foil here, as the two characters ultimately grow into a grudging mutual respect.

What struck me most is that the movie was made in 1967—just about forty years ago. Even though the Civil Rights Act and National Voting Rights Act had already passed, racism was still highly entrenched, especially in the deep south. Forty years ago may seem like a long time, but it takes on a different perspective when I think that it was only thirteen years before I was born—and at the time, my dad was the exact age I am *now*. There’s also an unpleasant echo of the bigotry [still so prevalent in this country](—in particular, a scene when one character angrily shouts at Gillespie that he had “no right” to let Virgil stay in the room during an interrogation. To espouse a sentiment of entitlement that involves *depriving somebody else of rights* is not only unwittingly ironic, it’s kind of sickening. It’s a shame that we haven’t learned from our mistakes of the past.