This gripping civil rights-era classic is back on UK screens
For years, it’s been fashionable to disregard Hollywood’s response to the civil rights movement, to deride liberal-minded movies like ‘In the Heat of the Night’ as feeble and platitudinous. But while there’s no denying that director Norman Jewison’s film arrived late in the day – by 1967, protests were already widespread – hindsight has lent this gripping, serious-minded melodrama a certain righteous intensity.
Sidney Poitier is pure charisma as Virgil Tibbs, the Philadelphia policeman whose between-trains stopover in a small Southern town is indefinitely extended when he’s first implicated in, then asked to assist with a local murder investigation. His initial adversary, Rod Steiger’s overweight racist sheriff, gradually learns respect for Tibbs’s method – but the other white townsfolk, rich and poor, aren’t convinced.
This is a brisk, well-oiled thriller with blistering performances and a crackling, memorable script. (‘They call me... MISTER TIBBS!’) But in the wake of the recent US election, ‘In the Heat of the Night’ also feels horribly relevant. While its optimistic conclusions may seem naive, its stark vision of white America as a seething, easily led mass of intolerance and blind anger is hard to ignore.
Cast and crew