1967 was a turbulent time in America. Lines were drawn and delineated. There was tension everywhere. I was a senior in a mostly white high school in Phoenix, Arizona. But my defining roots were from the ethnic diversity of the Bronx. I was raised in a neighborhood that aimed for equality for all, no matter the color of their skin. I saw the mixed tones of people just as a representation of human beings.
I was lucky to have that perspective growing up, but that’s also why learning about the treatment of black people felt so shocking. I thought the country would mature, grow smarter, and be kinder. I was wrong. The problem of racial inequality is still carried on even today. The hatred, anger, detritus, and violence are just as prevalent in our streets and communities. Confederate flags are seen and held in esteem. “The talk” is just as necessary as it was decades ago. I sometimes am at a loss for words.
When the film IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was first shown 55 years ago, it made an impact that continues in today’s volatile climate. It is an important film that leaves moviegoers with a minuscule chance of hope.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won five Oscars against several big- hitters, including GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. It received the gold statue for Best Film, Best Actor, Rod Steiger, Best Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects. The Golden Globes also honored this film by awarding it Best Film, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. This does not include the multitude of nominations in other categories worldwide. Norman Jewison was the director. I was lucky to meet him while I lived in Jerusalem. He was filming JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. I was introduced by my boss, the Director of Public Relations at the fabulous Israel Museum. I went up to Norman and asked him to hire me. Sigh… that was a moment of humongous “chutzpah.”
The film was made in Sparta, Illinois. Not in Mississippi. This was for Sidney Poitier’s safety. He had received many death threats at the time if he crossed into the south. They did film one small section of the movie in Tennessee. They needed the cotton plantation location. This was dangerous enough, and Sidney is said to have slept with a gun under his pillow every night. The shooting schedule was cut short. IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was one of the first films to use different stage lighting for darker skin tones. This made a huge difference in the look and set a standard for the future.
The story is basically a murder mystery, but with extreme racial discord. Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is from Pennsylvania and passing through town waiting for a train. He is immediately thought to be the prime suspect and about to be thrown in jail until Sparta’s Chief of Police, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), finds out who he really is. This powerful, compelling scene sets the mood for the entire film. Especially when Sidney is asked, “What do they call you up north?” And Sidney replies with such zest, “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” Jaw-dropping and the number sixteen most famous and quoted line of all time. Tibbs is coerced to help solve the murder since he is a homicide detective with loads of experience. Gillespie never knew what he was getting into, nor would his life ever be the same. It became a violent chase to the end. It was like running through a maze that included two slaps heard ’round the world, $15,000 worth of orchids, chains, hammers, picks, and over 240 packs of gum chewed by the Chief.
The strong ensemble included Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Larry Gates, Beah Richards, and James Patterson. But the film rests on the chemistry between the two leading men—their push-and-pull, emotional roller coaster made IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT a must-see movie. Two acting giants created the roles of a lifetime. Their breathless beats of silence were outstanding. They knew just how to play each scene with depth, authenticity, and truth. They were brilliant together. The pair played off each other…acting, reacting. They were always a team striving to make the film the best they could. What a gift for all future dramatic actors to receive and for the world to treasure.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is not easy to watch – though it is immensely entertaining and sometimes even humorous within the dark, unforgivable times. The opening music was created by Quincy Jones and sung by Ray Charles. It drew the audience into a place where nothing racially had evolved. It was subtle, smart, and spectacularly in-your-face. It was hard to quell my emotions while watching this phenomenal film. Sometimes the hard stuff must be taken out and sorted repeatedly until we get it right. The look between the Chief and Virgil at the end said it all. One person at a time can always make a difference and has the ability to change. Imagine if each of us did that every day. IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is a classic of the highest caliber. It can be the catalyst of hope for generations yet to come.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT can be streamed on FREEVEE.