The iconic 1967 Civil Rights film In the Heat of the Night when viewed fifty years later appears unsubtle. It has sledgehammer scenes triple underlining the insanity of racism and the general third world nature of the Deep South. There are many key moments. Tibbs demonstrates to the doctor that he doesn’t know how to examine a corpse. He retaliates to a slap from the patriarch Endicott with a back-handed slap. He is subtle in his analysis of evidence carefully drawing conclusions, unlike Sheriff Gillespie and his officers. Tibbs is black, northern and well-educated and a senior police officer. Where he works, “They call me, Mr Tibbs!” he declares to Gillespie who repeatedly calls Tibbs ‘Boy’. The invasion of northern supremacy continues with the murder of the investor who was going to fatally disturb the status quo ante. This is an indentikit Civil Rights film but is it more? Is it also a great film with nuances and subtlety?
The genius of the film is encapsulated in two minor scenes which bookend the film. The train carrying Virgil Tibbs pulls into Sparta in the dead of night. In a silent moment the doors open and a footstool is placed beneath descending feet. There is no clue as to whom those feet belong. The footstool is placed with two white hands highlighted showing a carefully placed box. In a final moment at end of the film Tibbs’s train pulls in in bright sunlight. Gillespie waits with Tibbs for the train and a white porter places the footstool. A white man doing a menial task for a middle-class Black-American. Tibbs ascends leaving Sparta for ever. Two wonderful moments in a wonderful film.
Why you should watch this film: Black Lives Matter! Demonstrates that Civil Rights campaigning isn’t a piece of historical nostalgia .
Why you shouldn’t watch this film: You don’t like issue driven films, which feel ‘preachy’.
PS Steiger got the Oscar for his performance.