This screening is part of the INTOLERABLE film series. 100% of net ticket sales from the series will benefit the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.
They call him MISTER TIBBS!
Norman Jewison’s adaptation of John Ball’s novel of Southern murder and racism was a ground-breaking work, both socially and cinematically. Teaming a black Philly homicide detective with a racist Mississippi police chief, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT took a tough look at the racial strife tearing America apart in the 60s and placed that examination against the backdrop of a thrilling and tense murder mystery. And when audiences weren’t on the edges of their seats because of the mystery, they were cheering at the sight of a black man slapping a racist white man in the face.
When an out-of-town industrialist winds up dead in the small, sweaty town of Sparta Mississippi, police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger, ON THE WATERFRONT) puts out a dragnet to pick up any… suspicious people. Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER), a black man waiting at the train station at 3am gets brought in, and Gillespie, seeing the color of the man’s skin, thinks he has his killer. But it turns out that Tibbs is a homicide detective from up north, and soon the two men are forced into an uneasy alliance to find the real killer. It’s an alliance that is filled with tension but that eventually comes to a place of understanding.
Winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Steiger, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was a movie unlike any the public had seen, and that’s why it was a sensation. Virgil Tibbs – who would go on to be the main character in two more mystery movies – slapping a racist who had slapped him in the face was a stunning moment that hit the culture like a bomb. Audiences had seen black characters treated badly in films with anti-racist messages before, but never had they seen a black man stand up for himself in that way. That scene – which was in danger of being cut from the film at various points in production – was one of the reasons Poitier, one of the finest actors to ever grace the screen, took the role.
More than that, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is notable for how cinematographer Haskell Wexler combatted the unconscious and unobserved bias in motion picture technology. Most movie lighting was tuned for white actors, which meant that black actors rarely photographed well in color. Wexler made sure to adjust his rigs in such a way that Poitier would photograph as handsomely as his co-stars, a small change that mitigated years of unthinking white bias.
Of course all of that wouldn’t matter if the film wasn’t any good, but IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is one of the great crime movies, with a twisty mystery and thrilling reveals. It’s a landmark in the cinematic examination of race, but it’s also a crackerjack entertainment.