“In The Heat of The Night” is a 1967 film by director, Norman Jewison, starring Sidney Poitier as, Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective who was on a visit to Sparta, Mississippi. While he was waiting for his train back to Philadelphia to arrive, he was arrested for the murder of Mr. Colbert, a well-known businessman in Sparta. The arresting officer failed to check Tibbs’ identification and arrested him solely on the suspicion of being a lone African American at the train station. Therefore, the officer did not realize that Tibbs was a police detective. Sparta police chief, Gillespie, found out that Tibbs was Philadelphia’s top homicide detective and reluctantly accepted the offer for Tibbs to assist them in solving the murder mystery.
Tibbs was also reluctant to assist the Sparta police because of the racial tension that existed in the South during this period, a period when African Americans in the South had only just regained their rights to vote after the Freedom Summer movement of 1964. According to Foner, this movement led to the campaign by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to take seats of the state’s all-white official party during the 1964 Democratic national convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Radical groups like the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) also emerged during this period to demand equal rights and civil liberties (pp. 1044 – 5.)
There was also the rise of “Black Power” slogan tied to Malcolm Little, who changed his last name to “X” after being converted to Islamic religion while in prison to signify separation from his African ancestry, calling on African Americans to rise and use the resources of their communities instead of working for the whites. Malcolm’s view also called for interracial co-operation for a radical change in America after his visit to Mecca where he witnessed harmony among Muslims of all races. President Lyndon Johnson finally signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (p. 1052.)
However, the Voting Rights Act did nothing to minimize the racial tension in the South where White Americans and African Americans still lived in suspicion of one another. The Klan was still in existence and they did all they could to harass Tibbs and run him out of town while he was investigating the murder case. Foner noted that the 1960s was a period Americans were drawn back into fighting for racial relations, feminism, social policy, and the nation’s proper role in world affairs. Foner also pointed out that though the 1960s could be “blamed for every imaginable social ill, from crime and drug abuse to a decline of respect for authority,” it was also a period that the United Sates became a more transparent, tolerant, and somewhat, freer country (p. 1076.)
Q2: What was the symbolism behind when Gillespie told Tibbs “you’re just like the rest of us, ain’t you?”
Chief Gillespie was in a hurry to solve the murder mystery and was ready to latch on to the first suspect, Harvey, who only stole Mr. Colbert’s wallet when he found his body lying in the street. Gillespie refused to believe Tibbs that they had the wrong suspect and asked Tibbs to return to Philadelphia. The mayor instructed Gillespie to have Tibbs complete the investigation because Mrs. Colbert threatened to take her husband’s business back to the North if Tibbs was taken off the case.
When Gillespie arrived at the train station to ask Tibbs to return, he refused saying that the case was not his problem. Gillespie threatened to call Tibbs' chief in Philadelphia to force him to stay and said, “You’re just like the rest of us, ain’t you?” The question was followed by Gillespie saying, “Because you’re so damned smart, you’re so mart that you’re gonna stay here and show us all. You’ve got such a big head that you couldn’t live with yourself unless you can put us all to shame.”
The symbolism of the question by Gillespie is that African Americans have always been treated as inferiors who lacked knowledge by the whites. This was Tibbs’ opportunity to treat the whites in the same manner by solving the case and making the whites feel inferior. What struck me is that the writers of this film did not include a response from Tibbs when Gillespie concluded by saying that Tibbs would not let an opportunity to show off his knowledge pass him by.
This may have to do with this era but from what I saw in the film, Tibbs was only concerned about making sure they had the right suspect and if that was showing off his knowledge, then so be it. He didn’t have control over how the white officers felt about him or their approach in solving the case. Therefore, his character shouldn’t have been made to shoulder the responsibility of any inferiority feelings on the white officers’ part.
Q3: Does the film offer a pessimistic or hopeful vision for the future of race relations in the United States?
The film offered a hopeful vision for the future of race relations in the United States as well as showing the important step of mutual respect and open communication as a way to achieve this. This was depicted in the scene where Gillespie took Tibbs to his house at night as he waited for information that would lead to the actual killer from Packy, a white informer and Harvey’s friend. Both men talked a little about themselves and realized that they had more in common than they realized. In this scene, one could see that Gillespie had begun to respect Tibbs as a human being and an associate.
The other scene in the movie that showed the future hope for improved race relations was the scene where Mrs. Colbert was waiting at the police station for Chief Gillespie to get answers about her husband’s death. Tibbs went in and gave her the information he had and Mrs. Colbert believed him not minding his race. She also demanded that Tibbs remain on the case until it was solved which showed that she trusted him to find the actual killer. One may argue that it’s because she came from the North and therefore, was not biased like the southerners but, she made her case based on the facts and evidences that Tibbs had which disqualified Harvey and officer Wood as the killers. This showed that she was willing to look beyond racial lines in solving the mystery of her husband’s murder.
Q4: Mayor Schubert as a Southern Mayor in the 1960s and what it means for this period
The film reveals that Mayor Schubert’s character did not care for a “negro” working on the case in his county but would be happy to let him take the blame if the murder wasn’t solved. He encouraged chief Gillespie to put Tibbs back on the case at Mrs. Colbert’s request and noted that it would work out for both he and the chief no matter what happened with the investigation in the end.
In other words, they would both take credit for being “open-minded” and working with Tibbs when the actual killer was found, or Tibbs and Mrs. Colbert would take the blame if the killer was not found and Tibbs would have failed in the end. This showed the level of mistrust and unwillingness to work with African Americans by the whites in the 1960s.
In The Heat of The Night Soundtrack by Ray Charles
Give Me Liberty: An American History/Foner, Eric - 3rd Ed