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Detective Virgil Tibbs is caught up in the racial tension of the US South when he is arrested after the murder of a prominent businessman. Tibbs was simply waiting for his next train at the station in Sparta, Mississippi and the confusion is soon resolved but when local police chief Gillespie learns that Tibbs is the Philadelphia PD's number one homicide expert, he reluctantly asks for his assistance. The murdered man, Mr. Colbert, had come to Sparta from the North to build a new factory and his wife and business associates immediately point the finger at Endicott, the most powerful man in the county and the one who had the most to lose if a major new employer comes to the area. Tibbs' life is clearly in danger but he perseveres in a highly charged and racially explosive environment until the killer is found. Written by
Whether he likes it or not, Sidney Poitier will always be remembered first and foremost as the first black actor to continuously star alongside and above his white counterparts. Just look at the opening credits to "In the Heat of the Night" and you will see that not only does he get an above the title starring credit with method maniac Rod Steiger, but his name also appears first. Something that could have easily been switched around and overlooked considering the importance of each character. But for this socially aware thriller born of the turbulent sixties, it had to be, most definitely, a conscious choice.
For Poitier, this film, along with "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?", marks the last of his civil rights driven roles in which his character's race is an all important plot element. From "Edge of the City" to "The Defiant Ones", Poitier excelled in bringing intelligent and commanding three dimensional characters to life. A feat he had to succeed at if his films were to gain the trust of a predominantly white audience and push for racial equality. Call him the Jackie Robinson of Hollywood.
When we first see Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, he is stepping off the train in the small Mississippi town of Sparta. Although we can only see him from the waist down, we do get a quick glimpse of his hand and from that we are aware of his race. An important fact for the audience to dwell on later when Rod Steiger as sheriff Gillespie, standing over a dead body on Main Street, and calls for his deputy to round up any strangers for questioning. From that moment on, director Norman Jewison establishes the racial tension that will only grow more and more intense as the film goes on.
Sometimes, the film is far from subtle in exploring the issue of racism. Endicott's plantation, complete with tall white pillars and a black jockey lawn ornament to guard them, is a perfect example. What starts off as a surprisingly civil conversation between Tibbs and Endicott quickly turns heated and unpredictable. From that moment on, the experience will serve to cloud Tibbs' judgment and bring his own flaws to the surface, making him almost as complex a character as Gillespie.
And it is the complexity of Gillespie that got Steiger the Best Actor Oscar over Poitier in 1968. This man has heart, but not made of gold, and his motivations are far from pure. He is simply a man who believes in doing his job, and doing it as just as possible - even if it means arresting a friend for murder. Take for an example the scene in which Tibbs is surrounded by a gang of blood thirsty locals. When Gillespie arrives to save the day, he simply gives them a warning and tells them to go home. It is only when they insult him personally that he becomes angry and takes a swing. His action is just - his motivation almost vain.
In the end, after the murder is solved and racial injustice is swept back under the rug, Tibbs and Gillespie say their farewells and continue on with their very different lives. Each one better off for knowing the other.
Rating [on a 5 star system] : 5 stars
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