Sidney Poitier’s Dignified Touch in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night
We hear Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) speak very few words in the early scenes of In the Heat of the Night. Tibbs is a stranger in a hostile town – he’s from Pennsylvania, just passing through after visiting his mother, and this is Mississippi, branded with the shameful badge of being the most racist of all the United States.1 Interrogated by redneck police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), when Tibbs does speak, he’s met with enmity and disbelief. He’s a black man in a world that won’t yield to him. Words seem pointless. In the end, it’s what Tibbs does with his body that counts; his actions prove his worth, both as a policeman and as a man.
We see this first when Tibbs examines the corpse of the white man, Philip Colbert (Jack Teter, uncredited), the factory owner whose murder he’s been asked to stay in Sparta to help solve. The camera focuses on Tibbs’s fingers as they move across white skin. He’s the authority figure here, reading the body for clues and signs, while the white doctor and undertaker stand to the side, useless and unimpressed. Hot night rolls into even steamier day. Colbert’s widow, Leslie (Lee Grant), waits in Gillespie’s office. The chief is chasing a false lead, and no one will tell her what’s happened. “You can’t go in there!” Tibbs is warned. But he does – walks in, closes the door. He’s doing his job, attempting to comfort her. She resists at first, and then doesn’t, allowing him to help her sit. Again, the camera focuses on Tibbs’s hand – Mrs Colbert won’t let go of it and we linger on it too. A line has been crossed. It won’t be the last.
During the summer of 1967, the United States continued to burn. Streets stewed with riots, protests, and violence. That July in Detroit and Newark, police beat, tortured, and murdered black bodies in the hundreds. The 1967 Detroit riots began on July 23, in the middle of a heatwave. It was precipitated by a police raid on an unlicensed bar in the early hours of the morning, where a group of 82 African-Americans were celebrating the return of two servicemen from the Vietnam War. Expecting only a small group to be gathered, and convinced most of them had prior convictions, the police response exceeded the reality of the situation – locking the group upstairs, and holding them without charge, while waiting for additional wagons to arrive. The ensuing riots followed those sparked ten days earlier, in Newark, New Jersey, also instigated by police brutality, this time against 40 year-old John Smith, a black cabdriver accused of tailgating a police car, who was beaten so badly, for allegedly resisting arrest, that he could barely walk.
The promises of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were repeatedly frustrated. Institutionalised racism persisted, as it continues to do today. In the South, and especially in Mississippi, change was met with vicious hostility. Stained with the blood of countless lynchings – including the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963, and the murder of three civil rights workers in the so-called Freedom Summer of 1964 – Mississippi was the site of ongoing racial terrorism. In the Heat of the Night rises from this horror, and the ghosts of the dead follow Tibbs around town.
A feverish tension crackles in each frame of In the Heat of the Night, sparked by the very real danger involved in making the film. In the Heat of the Night is not a ‘historical fiction’ as such but very much an urgent product of its time. Producer Walter Mirisch has recounted United Artists’ concerns about whether the film would lead to riots.2 When production moved from Illinois to Tennessee for just a few days, the cast and crew were regularly harassed; Poitier was so unnerved he slept with a gun under his pillow.3 It was a feeling he had experienced before. Even an actor of Poitier’s stature and visibility was regularly threatened; a trip to Mississippi with Harry Belafonte in 1964 had drawn the attention of the Ku Klux Klan.
Despite the volatile situation on the streets, 1967 was Sidney Poitier’s year at the movies. Two films, James Clavell’s To Sir, With Love and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, idealised his goodness through sentimentality. But as his third of that mammoth year, In the Heat of the Night did something more – it issued a dignified yet defiant challenge to film audiences to take a black man on his own terms, not theirs. It is a landmark film in the representation of African-American masculinity, even for Poitier, whose cool elegance, inner strength, good looks, restraint and intelligence, had secured his status as one of Hollywood’s few leading black man. He rarely played a man without self-respect; rarely a role that could be defined as negative or narrow. Towering above them all, Virgil Tibbs is arguably his most complex character. He’s a figure of admiration and authority, the smartest in the room in the sharpest suit; but also stubborn, sometimes reckless, and flawed.
While American cinema in the 1960s featured a number of significant black actors who helped break down racial stereotypes, including Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr., Poitier wears the mantle of many firsts. In 1963, he was the first African-American awarded an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field. With In the Heat of the Night, Poitier became the first black man to play a detective, and even more importantly, the first to hit a white man in an American film. If the early scenes of Tibbs touching white skin feel radical, ‘the slap’ pushed the image of black masculinity further still. Tibbs and Gillespie pay a visit to local plantation owner, Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), who lives in a house on a hill overlooking his fields of cotton, where Tibbs observes African-Americans bent over, working. Inside his greenhouse, Endicott waxes strangely about how orchids and black people require the same sort of care to get the best out of them. But when he realises that Tibbs is there to investigate him for Colbert’s murder, the pleasantries cease. Endicott slaps Tibbs. Rather than take his punishment, Tibbs – without hesitation – slaps Endicott right back.
The slap transcends the confines of the scene: like his less hostile contact with Colbert’s corpse and the hand of his widow, Tibbs’s hand across a white face reclaims black male dignity. Not just angry or defiant, it’s an expression of what will no longer be tolerated in human relations. And it’s courageous. Tibbs refuses to be a “whipping boy,” reinforced by his unwillingness to be forced out of town by either Gillespie or the boys who chase him around; his body won’t bend like those in Endicott’s fields. The cowering here is reversed, with Endicott shaken, close to weeping.
Poitier’s dignity renders Tibbs cool under fire. Rather than worry about Tibbs, we follow him confidently along. Poitier inspires ease and comfort. Haskell Wexler helped: working here on his first colour film, the director of photography understood that white and black skin required different lighting techniques. Wexler used low light so Poitier’s facial features were clear. As Mark Harris writes, before this, Poitier “had often been the victim of thoughtless over-lighting designed for white actors that added glare to his face and rendered his expressions indistinct”.4 If Poitier appeared expressionless, he would also appear mysterious and unknowable; to forge a connection between him and an already anxious audience, he needs to be completely visible. The camera takes on a humanising force.
In the Heat of the Night’s social commentary is knotted into its generic outline, but exists mostly in the figure of Poitier as Tibbs. His is a physical presence that both commands and demands respect. “They call me Mr Tibbs,” he booms, when the dehumanising slurs of ‘boy’ and ‘nigger’ become too much. In that final handshake between Tibbs and Gillespie, as the chief sees him off, at last, for his train to Memphis, there is something more than the resolution of two different men who have, in the end, learnt something from each other. It’s a simple gesture, black skin on white, cementing the status of Poitier’s touch as one that transfers dignity to others, onscreen and off.
- While a town called Sparta does exist in Mississippi, In the Heat of the Night was shot on location in Sparta, Illinois. ↩
- Phil Hoad, “How We Made In the Heat of the Night,” The Guardian (November 22, 2016) https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/nov/22/how-we-made-in-the-heat-of-the-night-norman-jewison. ↩
- Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (New York, Penguin Press, 2008), p.225. ↩
- Harris, p.221. ↩