There’s a New Sheriff in Town: Cultural Values in In the Heat of the Night

Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) is a thrilling murder mystery set in a small Mississippi town in the late 1960s, shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. The story follows a black detective, Virgil Tibbs, who is accused of murdering a prominent industrialist who had come to the town to build a factory. However, Tibbs reveals that he is actually a talented detective from Philadelphia, and the town sheriff convinces Tibbs to stay and work the case after he discovers that the local department has arrested the wrong man. He chooses to do this with the knowledge that he will face a great amount of racial prejudice while working the case. In the Heat of the Night won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in a year with extremely fierce competition. The film’s commercial success, combined with its critical acclaim, signified that American audiences were interested in social problem films and beginning to reject some longstanding cultural norms. The Heat of the Night affirms the value that the American North is culturally and intellectually superior to the South while it criticizes the idea that white Americans are more intelligent and talented than their black counterparts.

At the time of this film’s release, American literary and artistic works had long supported the idea that Northern United States was more culturally advanced and less prejudiced than the Southern United States, and In the Heat of the Night followed this cultural rule. The citizens of Sparta, Mississippi, where the film takes place, have a strong sense of local pride. This is evidenced when Ted Ulam, the funeral director, says “I could give him a nicer service right here in Sparta than he could ever get out there in Chicago, and at half the price too,” about the deceased, wealthy Chicagoan industrialist, Philip Colbert. They can easily identify outsiders as well. When Tibbs corrects the sheriff’s grammar in their first conversation, Gillespie calls him “a northern boy.” This demonstrates Jewison’s view that not only are Northerners more well-spoken, and thus better educated than their Southern counterparts, but also that the people of Mississippi do not want to learn to be more sophisticated. However, this is the most benign example of regional differences in the film. The Spartan townspeople’s local pride extends only to the white citizens who originate from there, and they make no attempts to hide their racism. Some townspeople go as far as to embrace it. The town thugs, who appropriately have a Confederate flag license plate on the front of their car, chase Tibbs down and through the town’s garbage dump where several white men were scavenging through the burning trash. When the racist men corner Tibbs in a railway house, one of them threatening to whip him with a chain in a clear reference to slavery. These occurrences overtly demonstrate the film’s message of the South being inferior to the North, where the audience is led to believe that such events would never take place, but none do as strongly as the scene at Eric Endicott’s plantation.

One of the most salient scenes in demonstrating the backwardness of the South occurs when Gillespie and Tibbs visit Endicott’s cotton plantation to question him about the murder. As they drive up, they see black workers hand-picking cotton and Gillespie remarks, “None of that for you, huh, Virgil?” In Philadelphia, a black man can become a detective, but in Sparta, they seem doomed to work in the fields. There is a blackface lawn statue in front of the mansion, and the detectives are greeted by a black butler. When they meet Endicott in the greenhouse, he and Tibbs discuss species of orchids, another subject that the well-educated Tibbs has an impressive amount of knowledge about. Endicott finds that amusing because, “like the Negro, they need care and feedin’ and cultivatin’, and that takes time.” Tibbs diverts the conversation to the murder and Endicott slaps him for suggesting that he could be guilty of murder, which Tibbs shockingly responds to by slapping him back even harder. Endicott is scandalized, proclaiming that “There was a time when I could have had you shot!” Later on, the mayor questions Gillespie about why he sided with Tibbs in this instance, saying that “The last chief we had, he’d have shot Tibbs one second after he slapped Endicott, claim self-defense.” Both men treat the concept of shooting an innocent black man in the name of self-defense almost as standard practice rather than as a hate crime. This has a certain dark irony when one considers that Tibbs was merely defending himself. This idea that the North is more culturally evolved than the South has remained pervasive in media (regardless of whether it can be factually proven true or not). Although Jewison affirms one cultural ideal valuing a certain group over another (i.e. Northerners over Southerners), he refutes another.

In the 1960s, it was still the view of many Americans that although black citizens had been granted equal rights under the law, they were not as qualified for or deserving of ambitious careers, a belief which In the Heat of the Night seeks to disprove. This film demonstrates that when given the same opportunities as white citizens, African-Americans can be just as successful as them, and sometimes even more so. The first occurrence of racial profiling occurs very early in the narrative when Officer Wood finds an unfamiliar black man—Tibbs—quietly sitting while waiting for a train and immediately pins him as a prime suspect for Colbert’s murder solely on the basis of his skin color and the fact that he was carrying a significant amount of money. Wood takes Tibbs back to the station for questioning, and when Gillespie asks Tibbs about why he has so much money in his wallet, he is shocked to learn that he makes $162.39 per week. Upon Tibbs’ insistence, Gillespie calls his chief in Philadelphia and is similarly taken aback upon hearing that he is the department’s “number one homicide expert.” However, the sheriff is forced to accept that Tibbs has more experience than him when he corrects the coroner on Colbert’s time of death.

This is not the only time that Tibbs proves the white officers wrong by slowing down and assessing the situation logically. The next morning, he inspects new suspect Harvey Oberst’s handcuffed wrists and hand and finds that he is left-handed, so he could not be the murderer based on the victim’s wounds, and that Oberst had only stolen Colbert’s wallet after the murder. Gillespie is embarrassed to have been shown up again and comments on his name, Virgil, in the same breath as referring to him with the n-word. He asks Tibbs, “What do they call you up there [in Philadelphia]?” He receives the famous answer, “They call me Mister Tibbs.” Tibbs has a job that beckons respect, which he receives up North, and he rightfully asks for the same treatment from an inferior detective in Sparta as well. The sheriff eventually changes his views, but it takes him spending time with Tibbs while solving a case together to do so. When Tibbs asks Gillespie to keep him on the case so that he can pursue Endicott, Gillespie accuses Tibbs of reverse discrimination and comes to a realization that they both just want to do their jobs, even though they have their personal biases. He says to Tibbs, “Man, you’re just like the rest of us. Ain’t ya?” The final scene completes Gillespie’s emotional transition from begrudging acceptance of Tibbs to genuine respect. He carries Tibbs’ luggage for him to the train station and offers him a handshake and a goodbye in the form of “You take care now, ya hear?” as he sees him off.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this film is that racism is not the focus of the plot, but it is an ever-pervasive aspect of it. By casting a popular actor and marketing the film as a whodunit, Jewison may have been more successful in getting his message across by catching audiences off guard and forcing them to confront the realities of racial disparity in the United States and their own prejudices. In the Heat of the Night does not offer a grand solution to the race relation issues in America, suggesting only that we begin by respecting one another at the individual level. Additionally, it does not gloss over the dark realities of the Deep South, choosing instead to represent them to audiences as they were. The legacy of Jewison’s film has lived on far past 1967, as it spawned several sequels and a television show and is still considered a must-watch film, and it will likely remain an important portrait of American culture and history for decades to come.