Spoiler Warning: The ending is discussed at length.
In the Heat of the Night is touted as a groundbreaking films about race. However, it places blackness in the place of otherness and placates the white audiences by being far more concerned with demonstrating how one white man is able to overcome his prejudice and be not that bad of a guy instead of truly confronting the ugliness of racism in America and how it affects black people.
Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time. His train stop in the small town of Sparta, Mississippi coincides with the murder of a rich white man. But when Virgil is brought in to police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger), he drops a bomb that he is a homicide detective in Philadelphia. After a series of events, Gillespie reluctantly works alongside the more capable Virgil to solve the murder.
And here-in comes the first great lie of the film: Virgil helping the police in a town that hates him. Virgil knows the town is trouble and that he risks his life as an affluent black man every moment he stays there, but through the worst scene in the film, a white man appeals to the black man’s desire to make the white man look foolish.
Virgil comes off as the greater fool for risking his life for a case outside his jurisdiction and involving people he has no connection to whatsoever. This is not Philadelphia, but the deep south in an area of racial upheaval. Mr. Tibbs risks his life to prove a point, which does not sound like the kind of thing a smart black man would do.
The film tries to build up a friendship between Virgil and Gillespie, but it misses the core difference between the two characters. The black man must risk his very life in order to uphold the law in a town where almost every white man would rather see him dead. The white man only risks being unpopular. That’s hardly equal footing and as much as the film tries to put the two on common ground. Gillespie has no real interest in even beginning to understand what Virgil experiences on a daily basis.
By the end of it all, the film has made Gillespie out to be not that bad of a guy after all. He’s now more open-minded and has evolved as a character, but without any true risk. He already claims the town hates him and at no point is his life in any true peril and yet somehow the film wants to make him out to be somehow admirable by the end of the picture.
Meanwhile, Virgil is the same man he was when he stepped off the train. He’s taken all kinds of risks, stuck his neck out countless times, and gained nothing. The black man takes all the risks while the white man does all the growing, which is both bad storytelling and a horrible way to try to bridge racial divides.
Yes, Virgil may get away with slapping a white man. Yes, he may run mental circles around the dumb white racists charactures of Sparta, Mississippi, but he’s still the other, the figure who does not belong, the one who must be shuffled off back onto the train because the American South is not ready for an educated, affluent black man. At least the film got that much right, but there’s little else it fails to grasp about the complex issues of race.
© James Blake Ewing 2019