Historical Circuit: There is Still Light In the Oscar-winning ‘In the Heat of the Night’

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in 1967's "In the Heat of the Night"
MGM and United Artists’ “In the Heat of the Night”

TITLE OF FILM: “In the Heat of the Night”
DIRECTOR: Norman Jewison
WRITER: Stirling Siliphant
STARRING: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oats, Lee Grant


As “In the Heat of the Night” opens, the crooning voice of Ray Charles is heard first as a train makes its way through a desolate southern town. Written by Quincy Jones, the theme may be jazzy in its composition, but the lyrics are actually a mantra searching for strength in a place of great sadness.

During the heat of the night in Sparta, Mississippi, a police officer on patrol discovers the dead body of a wealthy northern businessman. The town’s gum-smacking police chief, Bill Gillespie, sends his force out to catch the killer. The first man arrested is Virgil Tibbs. He is a homicide detective who just happens to be waiting for a train back to Philadelphia.  He is also African-American.

After quickly being exonerated, Tibbs’ chief in Philadelphia suggests that the detective stay and help out with the investigation. With both men’s hands tied, Chief Gillespie and Mr. Tibbs must begrudgingly work together. Due to the townsmen’s bigoted hostility towards the black detective, the story becomes a race against time. With push back every step of the way, Mr. Tibbs must solve the crime before he becomes a victim of murder.


Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger

Technicolor is on full display in “In the Heat of the Night.” In the decade where black and white was becoming a thing of the past, cinematographer Haskel Wexler does not let color go to waste. The pink neon sign of the town’s diner, the yellow glasses Chief Gillespie sports and the bright blue cop uniforms are all striking. For a story so full of shame and darkness, it does not take to hiding the brightness that can be found in this world.

The incomparable Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs with great distinction. He is sturdy, controlled and level headed, and he is not afraid to fight back against the abhorrent behavior he is forced to endure. More importantly, he understands where he is and who he is dealing with. This composed demeanor is reminiscent of great civil rights activists and is ultimately the reason he achieves the successes he can. It is his cool head that is in stark contrast to the white men he faces throughout the film. His nemeses are loud, red in the face and foaming out the mouths.

His only defender is also his main adversary. Chief Gillespie is as racist as the rest but must continue to come to Mr. Tibbs’ aid due to his professional responsibilities. Rod Steiger is on fire as Chief Gillespie. Steiger was a great method actor, trained at the Actor’s Studio. He became known for bringing dark, maddened characters to life. He played Marlon Brando’s brother in 1954’s “On the Waterfront” and the title gangster in 1959’s “Al Capone.” Here, his Chief Gillespie is a layered portrayal, with a hard outer surface and an assuaged center.

Three-time Academy Award nominee Norman Jewison directed this film classic. His career has stretched decades- “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964), “Moonstruck” (1987) and “The Hurricane” (1999). Although the ending may feel a tad rushed, overall, Jewison is able to set a fine tempo. As the film progresses, he is able to ramp up the intensity from two angles- Mr. Tibbs’ investigation and the townsmen’s growing disgust of this man passing judgment.


“In the Heat of the Night” tries to tackle racism in a realistic way. Chief Gillespie is struggling with two trains of thought running through his mind. How does he reconcile what he was brought up believing with what he is witnessing firsthand? Many believe that there is a certain order to things. No matter how sad or difficult life becomes, people can take comfort in the “fact” that at least they are better off than them.

“In the Heat of the Night” may be known best for Sidney Poitier’s fiery comeback line “They call me, Mr. Tibbs,” but the standout scene in the film is a tad more reserved while dealing with the deeply seeded ideology us versus them.

At Chief Gillespie’s home, the two leading men have just finished eating a meal together. They sit opposite each other, on the same plane, neither one with the upper hand. Gillespie begins to open up to Tibbs, and for the first time, the audience sees a glimpse of a lonely and disenchanted man. Tibbs sees this honest moment as an olive branch of sorts, but Gillespie will have none of that. For if he has feelings equal to that of a black man, where does that leave him?

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger


The film was lauded with praise upon its release. Critics especially praised the two lead performances. New York Daily News’ Wanda Hale wrote: “It’s a pleasure, all too rare, to watch two splendid actors pitted against each other with an equal force such as Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger… .” In his first year at the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert listed it as one of his top ten films of the year. His review stated that the film was “distinguished primarily by Rod Steiger’s brilliant performance, which deserves an Oscar as the best of the year.”

The film received seven Golden Globe nominations, winning three. And it received seven Academy Awards nominations, winning five. The film took home Best Sound and Best Film Editing. Rod Steiger accepted the Oscar for Best Actor, and Stirling Silliphant won for Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium). Best Picture of the Year was also awarded to the film.


Released in 1967, “In the Heat of the Night” is based on the novel by John Ball published two years before. Ball would continue to write an entire series based on Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs. The film’s sequel, “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs” was released in 1970, with Sidney Poitier returning as the title character. These works would also lead to a long-running television show of the same name with Carroll O’Connor (famous for his portrayal of Archie Bunker in “All in the Family”) and Howard Rollins (from the film “Ragtime”) as leads.

In recent years, there has been a litany of films that revolve around race relations. 2004’s “Crash”, 2011’s “The Help” and 2018’s “Green Book” all offer worthy portrayals of the connections people make because of and in spite of their differences. They each demonstrate that knowing a person is key to true acceptance.


Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night”

Today’s political landscape and the mass migrations of populations have led to an uptick in racial crimes around the world. These crimes are a reminder that there still is a long way to go in the fight for equal rights and respect for all.

“In the Heat of the Night” asserts that this fight is worth having. Our common humanity is stronger than any detail that may separate us. The film brilliantly uses the evolution of the relationship between the two leads to show the often arduous and tumultuous process of changing one’s opinions. Change within one’s self is not easy. And in this film, all is not settled when the credits roll. But Gillespie’s farewell to Mr. Tibbs at the film’s end is moving because it rings true. It shows a budding reverence and ultimately, hope in the future. And that hope is the light that will lead us through the night until dawn.

“In the Heat of the Night” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and for rent/purchase on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Playstation and Apple.

What are your thoughts on “In the Heat of the Night”? Let me know in the comments below.

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72 points

Written by Jessica White

Jessica White studied film and theater at California State University, Sacramento graduating in 2009 with a B.A.. Upon graduation, she shifted her focus towards healthcare and became a dentist, graduating from the Oregon Health and Science University in 2017. She is actively serving in the United States Navy overseas, but continues to feed her passion for the visual arts, her first love.

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