This is my entry in the Sidney Poitier Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema.
In the old days of the racist South, a black man had to abide by certain rules of etiquette when dealing with white people. There was segregation that reared it's ugly head in the form of substandard facilities, like restrooms and restaurants. There were places where only whites were served. Black people had to live in segregated neighborhoods, and since they were not paid anything near equal in wages, those neighborhoods were also substandard.
When John Ball appeared on the scene with his first novel featuring Virgil Tibbs, he set the story in this world. Tibbs himself was, probably (although it's not entirely clear), a former resident of this world. (He was on his way back home from visiting his mother, and I highly doubt she moved to this world from a more lenient section of the country). Tibbs, being from Pasadena, CA (in the movie it was changed to Philidelphia, PA), has grown accustomed to being treated more equally, and the change in attitude from the locals leaves him frustrated and edgy.
Sidney Poitier was cast in the iconic role of a northern police officer caught in the South with a murder in which he is first a suspect, then is instrumental in solving the true identity of the murderer. In the course of the film, Poitier exudes the right amount of a blend of hostility, compassion and superiority, without overdoing any of them. Since his debut about 20 years earlier, Poitier had been nominated twice for Oscars, winning once for Lilies of the Field. He brought to the production and astounding resume already at this point in his career, and SHOULD have been able to add a third Oscar nomination for his performance here, but that would prove not to be so. (He was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, so it's not all bad, but still...)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
It is a hot summer's eve in Sparta, Mississippi. (Note: There is no connection to the real Sparta, MS. The film was not even made in the south, as obviously at that time there would have been extreme hostility to the film's concept in that part of the country. It was filmed in a "Sparta", but the one in Illinois, instead.) Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) makes his rounds, which includes a brief episode where he indulges in voyeurism, spying on a young girl as she parades around her kitchen in the nude.
Wood eventually discovers a dead body, which is revealed to be that of Philip Colbert, a wealthy man who had been in town to negotiate building a factory, which would have brought much need money and prestige to the community. Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) sends Sam out to find and round up any suspicious persons. Checking the train station, Wood finds a man in the "colored" waiting room and arrests him. It turns out, however, that the man is above suspicion: he's actually a police officer on the force in Philadelphia, PA, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier).
Once it becomes clear that Tibbs is not a valid suspect, the focus is on finding the killer. Tibbs is basically commanded by his superior officer in Philly to present himself as a help to solve the murder. Gillespie and the rest of the town are reluctant to even admit that a black man could be of any use, but Gillespie lets Tibbs inspect the body of Colbert. Tibbs garners some information from his inspections and heads back to the police station.
Enter Harvey Oberst (Scott Wilson), a poor white from the town who has been found with Colbert's wallet and a large sum of money. Tibbs tells Gillespie that it is highly unlikely that Oberst killed the victim because Oberst is left-handed, and Tibbs' investigations prove that the killer was right-handed. But since Gillespie's prejudices restrain him from accepting Tibbs' theories, he has Oberst jailed on the murder charge.
Colbert's wife (Lee Grant) is instrumental in the continuation of keeping Tibbs on as a helper in the investigation, threatening to pack up and move the potential factory somewhere else if he is not given a free hand in the investigation. But she is the only person in town, initially, who is on his side. Because Tibbs refuses to kowtow and be the subservient Negro that the white people expect of their dark-skinned neighbors, he manages to offend just about everyone with whom he comes into contact. This is especially true of a gang of roughs who at one point chase him and corner him in an abandoned factory. It is only the fortunate arrival of Gillespie that prevents him from getting the snot beat out of him.
Tibbs main suspect is the town's rich man, Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), with whom he gets into a slapping match. The so-called "slap heard round the world" comes in a confrontation during an interview with Endicott on his plantation.
In the course of the film, Delores appears before Gillespie and accuse Woods of having seduced her and gotten her pregnant. This coupled with the fact that woods recently made a large deposit at the bank causes Gillespie to arrest Woods on suspicion of the murder. But Woods is innocent, since he has been saving money at home and just made the large deposit after it got really big. But the pregnancy of Purdy leads Tibbs to discover the true culprit of the murder.
Although he does not win he hearts of the entire town (which would put the movie in the realm of fantasy if he did), he does win the admiration and respect of Gillespie and Woods (and probably several of Woods' fellow officers).
Steiger was nominated for, and won, the Oscar for Best Actor in the film. He went up against some sound performances by 4 other actors from other movies, but he was NOT challenged by Poitier for his role as Tibbs. Why, I can't say. Poitier's performance is definitely Oscar material. However, looking at the four other candidates that year, I'd be extremely hard pressed as to decide which one I would have left out in order to put Tibbs in their spot. Perhaps you might have a choice, so I'll include the other four candidates and see if you can choose:
Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde
Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate
Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke
Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
The film also won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing and for Best Film Editing, and was in the running for several other categories. 1967 was a landmark year in the film industry, and for an excellent overview on the background to the five nominees for Best Picture this year (along with this one, also were in the running: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Dr. Doolittle), I refer you to Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of New Hollywood.
Well folks, time to rev up the old Plymouth and head home. Drive safely.