A Solitary Beacon: How Sidney Poitier and ‘In the Heat of the Night’ Reframed Hollywood’s Conversation on Race

How Sidney Poitier's iconic role in 'In the Heat of the Night' reshaped Hollywood's racial narrative, marking a pivotal shift in cinema's approach to civil rights
In the Heat of the Night (1967) - Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier


The article explores Sidney Poitier’s unique position in Hollywood as a pivotal figure in the portrayal of African American struggles during the civil rights era, highlighting his significant role in films that addressed racial prejudice. It particularly focuses on In the Heat of the Night, a film that not only showcased Poitier’s exceptional talent but also marked a significant moment in cinematic history for its nuanced treatment of race relations. The adaptation of John Ball’s novel into a film that transcended its mystery genre to confront racism head-on is detailed, noting how Poitier’s involvement and the creative decisions made by the filmmakers, including director Norman Jewison and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, shifted the narrative towards a more profound examination of racial tensions in America. The article illustrates the challenges and triumphs in bringing the story to the screen, Poitier’s influence on the film’s direction, and the impact of its release during a tumultuous period in American history, ultimately underscoring Poitier’s legacy as a trailblazer who used his platform to foster dialogue and change.

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Apparently, where Hollywood was concerned it was up to Sidney Poitier and him alone to pretty much carry the weight of the civil rights movement on his shoulders. The film industry had been doing its part to condemn racism against the black population as far back as the late 1940s, before Poitier had even made his first picture (Fox’s 1950 release No Way Out), but once it had found a star of his magnetism, talent, good looks, and box-office appeal, any film that brought up the subject of prejudice and the black populations fight for acceptance was his for the asking. By the late 1960s his resume was already full of worthwhile projects, including some, like Lilies of the Field (United Artists, 1963) and To Sir, with Love (Columbia, 1967), where the color of his skin was irrelevant to the drama at hand. Now that was progress. However, this approach (looking past an issue rather than confronting it) also offered a safety net of sorts for the nervous movie industry, which loved Poitier but worried about how far it could allow him (and other performers of his race) to advance and how honestly it wanted to show just how steeped in inequality and internalized hatred the country was during this turbulent decade. If Poitier was looking for that final word on the subject, the one that would indicate that the African American population not only was around to be accepted as equals but could also show themselves to be superior to many a white man, then he got it with In the Heat of the Night, which proved to be the crowning achievement of his illustrious career.

It was independent film producer Walter Mirisch who first happened upon John Ball’s book, which had earned the author an Edgar Award as the Outstanding Mystery Novel of 1965. Ball had taken what might have been a conventional whodunit and cleverly commented on prejudice, having a quick-thinking black police officer from Pasadena, California, get involved with a murder that had taken place in a hostile hotbed of racism somewhere in the Deep South. Mirisch hired writer Stirling Silliphant to adapt the book so the producer would have a solid script to show whichever director he hoped to attach to this potentially touchy project. Mirisch presented the screenplay to Norman Jewison, who had just helmed a very successful comedy/message picture for the producer, The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming (United Artists, 1966), and he jumped at the chance of making his cinematic statement on a cause very dear to him. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the character of Virgil Tibbs had Poitier’s name written all over it, and he accepted the role without hesitation. The first actor considered for the part of Police Chief Gillespie was George C. Scott, but Jenkins finally settled on Rod Steiger, hot off a pair of 1965’s major releases, The Pawnbroker (Landau) and Doctor Zhivago (MGM). Silliphant had already made some major alterations in his adaptation, and once Jewison and his cast were assembled, even more revisions, additions, and cuts were made, eliminating the somewhat pulpy, often superficial tone of Ball’s book and fashioning a more subtle and potent work. This was one instance in which Hollywood took a literary property and improved it in every way.

Aside from clearly designating where the action was taking place (Mississippi), the first thing that was strengthened in the script was the background of the murder victim. In the book he had been an Italian orchestra conductor named Mantoli who had come to the sleepy town of Wells in order to establish a music festival. In a brilliant stroke, the film changed him to an industrialist whose intention of building a factory in the economically strapped town is brought to a halt by his senseless death. The need for industry rather than high culture played more believably in light of the unsophisticated nature of the citizens. Tibbs’s base of operations was now Philadelphia, an urban center with a large black population, rather than Pasadena, which would have indicated that he had escaped to the more liberal shores of Southern California rather than establishing himself in the freethinking cities of the North. The maestro’s daughter was disposed of in favor of a grieving widow, which gave Lee Grant a terrific opportunity to emote as an open-minded Northerner appalled by the racial insensitivities around her. This also meant that the somewhat hokey romance between the victim’s daughter and Deputy Sam was discarded, keeping the focus on the mystery and on the tension between Tibbs and Gillespie. In a prime example of Hollywood’s being braver than its source novel, sluttish Delores Purdy’s age was lowered to sixteen in order to bring up the issue of statutory rape, whereas she had been lying about her years in the novel (she was actually eighteen when she became pregnant). Purdy’s guardian became her ignorant brother (not her pigheaded father), and the climax was strengthened to include a character who had not appeared in the book, Mama Caleba, an illegal abortionist who holds the name of the murderer. Two additions to the script Jewison credited to Poitier. A scene in which Tibbs is taunted by tailgating rednecks who bump his car from behind was based on a real-life experience that Poitier and fellow entertainer Harry Belafonte had earlier in the decade when campaigning for civil rights in Mississippi. The other addition was more monumental and gave the film its greatest single moment.

“Because you’re so damn smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just gonna stay here and show us all. You got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You wanna know something, Virgil? I don’t think that you could let an opportunity like that pass by.”
—Bill Gillespie

In the Ball novel, the character of wealthy businessman Endicott was a somewhat peripheral one; he played host to the maestro’s daughter at his mansion and cooperated fully with Tibbs and his investigation, showing none of the pent-up hostility toward the detective that most of the townspeople do. But in the film, Endicott became a chief suspect because he was seen as a rival for the victim’s industrial plans, and his position as Sparta’s most influential and powerful citizen was emphasized by his arrogance and sense of entitlement. But most significant, the film’s Endicott was an unapologetic racist, even more dangerous than the white-trash townies in his insistence on adhering to antiquated traditions and class distinctions based on color. Therefore, the pivotal scene in the picture became Poitiers’s confrontation with the millionaire (as played by Larry Gates) in his greenhouse. Gillespie tags along in order to put Endicott at ease, and Endicott’s black servant hovers in the background, presenting a subtle contrast between his servility and Tibbs’s authority. Endicott feels fully justified in slapping the black police officer for having the audacity to suggest that a man in his position should be questioned by someone he considers an inferior, so he is mortified and enraged when Tibbs instinctively strikes him right back in retaliation for the lack of respect the white man has shown him. This was plainly and simply Poitier’s most powerful and physical cinematic comment on the whole race issue. Putting behind all the polite and accommodating characteristics he had previously displayed as a man eager not to rock the boat but to merely fit in or be accepted on the basis of his capabilities rather than his color, this was an outburst of rage that spoke volumes. With this single gesture the message was made clear: the imbalance would no longer be accepted, past prejudices would have to be laid to rest, and violence just might be answered with violence. The scene was superbly enhanced by the mix of stunned disbelief and subtle hint of admiration registered on Steiger’s face and the tears of humiliation that Gates sheds once the others have left the room. This was without a doubt one of the towering motion-picture moments of the decade.

It was just such moments that made the Mirisch Corporation hesitant to spend too much money on something that was a risk in terms of bringing in substantial audiences, since the film clearly took no prisoners when it came to condemning the South specifically. The Mirisches gave Jewison a budget that capped off at $2.6 million. At Poitiers instance, Jewison looked for a place to film that was above the Mason-Dixon line: the star believed that the incendiary subject matter could expose the cast and crew to danger. Therefore, a very sleepy town in southern Illinois by the name of Sparta was chosen. It was close enough to the Mississippi River that the crew could film scenes of Scott Wilson’s attempted escape by and over the fabled river, remaining somewhat true to the intended locale. In order to save themselves the trouble of changing signs, the name of the story’s setting became Sparta. This was the biggest thing to ever happen to this town, and the citizens were only too happy to accommodate the folks from Hollywood, who filmed most of the exteriors there or nearby during the fall of 1966, starting on September 19.

But it was the build-up to the aforementioned Endicott scene that posed a problem as far as location was concerned. Silliphant’s script called for Endicott to rule over a cotton plantation, which meant Jewison needed to capture the real thing: Tibbs and Gillespie were supposed to drive their vehicle among the black sharecroppers, who represented a shameful and backward step in Tibbs’s eyes. A suitable field was found in Dyersburg, in western Tennessee, and Poitier reluctantly agreed to journey there for a few days in order to get this telling moment preserved onscreen. Once the bulk of the picture was finished shooting in these far-off places, the production headed west to Hollywood, where some interior sets, including the police station, were built on the soundstages of the Samuel Goldwyn Studio.

In the Heat of the Night succeeded in pulling viewers into its mystery while never missing an opportunity to shade a scene with an underlying gesture or passing comment that suggested Virgil’s efforts to see justice done were nearly thwarted at every turn by stupidity and bigotry. ‘I he pacing, writing, directing, and almost uniformly superb acting never banged home the point too blatantly or stridently, which was why the picture continued to play so well as progress was made in subsequent decades. There is no doubt that many viewers found themselves coming around, slowly, some resistant, much in the manner of Steiger’s character, until they had to concede, if only to themselves, that a black character was clearly the hero, the levelheaded voice of reason, the protagonist to root for, the man to admire. In the Heat became one of the runaway hits of the season.

By the time the Oscar nominations were announced in the winter of 1968, Jewison’s picture had become somewhat overshadowed by the tremendous public and critical response to a pair of films that would become perhaps the two most seminal motion pictures of their era, Bonnie and Clyde (Warner Bros.) and The Graduate (AVCO Embassy). In the Heat of the Night found itself competing with these movies, which seemed to bode none too well for its chances at capturing the top prize. What’s more, somehow Poitier had been left out of the running, Steiger being the only cast member to get a nomination. When the awards were handed out on April 10, 1968, In the Heat’s overall excellence won out, and the Mirisch Corporation was thrilled to receive its third Best Picture Oscar that decade (following The Apartment and West Side Story). As Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate continued to rise in stature over the years, many were predisposed to come down hard on the film that had “robbed” them of their Academy accolade, only to find out just how marvelous the victor truly was.

Barry Mohush, Everybody’s talkin’: the top films of 1965-1969,  New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2009


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