Based on the novel by John Ball, In the Heat of the Night (1967) is a layered whodunit that stars Sidney Poitier as a redoubtable hepcat, big city detective who, on the way back from visiting his mama Down South, stumbles onto an investigation that will surely be bungled by the police chief and his inept squad. Midway through Norman Jewison’s Oscar-winning film, the mayor of this Mississippi cotton town tells Chief Gillespie (Oscar-winner Rod Steiger) to keep the black Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs on the case of a Chicago manufacturer found dead in the street the night before. The mayor tells the chief, with a wink, having Tibbs on the case will mollify the victim’s wife (Lee Grant), and, if Tibbs solves the case, the chief can take credit for it. Likewise, if Tibbs doesn’t find the killer, the town can’t be blamed. The chief nods.
In the next scene, Gillespie meets with Tibbs at the depot and convinces him to stay on the case by appealing to his pride and Tibbs’ desire to show up the town rednecks, who he has already demonstrated he is sharper than. Tibbs nods and returns to the case.
In the course of helping with the investigation, Tibbs faces bigotry in every corner, at every level of that miserably stratified town. He’s cursed and threatened by street toughs and the town’s chief employer. From cotton fields to the roadside diners, Jewison shows race prejudice suffusing every aspect of life in Sparta. But he also shows that sometimes racism can be defused by the pursuit of the truth and fairness. So, in that way Tibbs is not only smarter than the white folks he is also nicer.
In the Heat of the Night emits a post-Kennedy era positivism that says prejudice is quite often just ignorance and given proper circumstances even the most despicable person will embrace the better angels of his nature. But, too often, those folks would rather just stew in their hate.