Although hardly a social utopia, Hollywood has come a long way in its portrayal of relations between whites and blacks since the first half of the last century. Films like Seven and Requiem for a Dream can feature diverse casts without being about some naive learning process. There was a time, however, when such pairings would have made front-page headlines and caused public outrage. Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (1967) erupted out of the frustration felt by those who were forced to stand by and watch a country tearing itself apart. The film is one of the finest examples of a serious drama that mixes social message into genre intrigue. What really stays with you is just how expertly it does that.
Sidney Poitier plays Northerner Virgil Tibbs, who has the misfortune of waiting for a connecting train in a tiny station in Spartan, Mississippi at the same moment that a rich white land developer is murdered. Local police immediately assume he is guilty by proximity and haul him in to meet sheriff Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger initially as the gum-snapping less corrupt brother of Orson Welles' sheriff Quigley from Touch of Evil. I don't want to reveal too much of what happens, especially since the process of how these men come to understand each other is so gradual, true, and full of iconic moments that each new viewer should have the opportunity to experience it for themselves. (Of course the text on the back of the DVD gives away some terrific plot twists, so if you don't already know what happens just pop out the disc and sit down)
I want to emphasize how entertaining In the Heat of the Night is. It is not a civics lesson. The characters are richly textured and the acting absolutely marvelous (Steiger won the Oscar, but if ever there was a film that begged a tie, this is it). Warren Oates and Lee Grant also turn in outstanding performances as a simple-minded deputy and the widow of the murder victim, respectively. Grant, in particular, brings a sense of empathy as an outsider who displays total disgust at the animosity the leads feel towards one another. Quincy Jones' score and the Ray Charles-sung title song help create an atmosphere of oppressive Southern heat, as does Haskell Wexler's cinematography. With harsh and often unforgiving lighting Wexler approximates the high-contrast look of crime scene photos and his early use of documentary-style hand-held camera creates an air of realism without the self-consciousness of later shaky-cam films.
Special note needs to be made of the editing by Hal Ashby, who crafts a perfectly paced film. He maintains long stretches of silence that make the events seem all the more important.
In the Heat of the Night maintains the ability to surprise over a quarter century after its release and, even though the daily upheaval of the then-raging civil rights movement doesn't currently exist to give the film its fully intended context, the racist assumptions and uncomfortable silences still seem torn from the headlines. Phrases like "racial profiling" and "41 bullets" may be very recent, but an outstanding film like In the Heat of the Night helps to preserve a dark cultural heritage that reminds us both of how far we've come and also of how far we still have left to go.