Parents' Guide to

In the Heat of the Night

By Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 15+

Oscar-winning police drama about racism has heavy themes.

Movie NR 1967 109 minutes
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Like The Help and Mississippi Burning, this movie ably explores the ways whites have mistreated blacks in this country for hundreds of years and how the mistreatment goes on. Kids may be shocked to learn that at the same time blacks were making some progress against prejudice in the northern parts of the U.S., many laws and customs lingered in the South banning blacks from attending good schools, getting good jobs, using public bathrooms, being served at restaurants, and staying at decent hotels. Tibbs's high intelligence, self-confidence, good looks, and exceptional skill make him the kind of unimpeachably above-average person who proves prejudging people is a senseless practice. The sheriff's initial condescension is predictable but given Tibbs' gifts, how could the sheriff not come around, grudgingly as he does, in the end? The Help posed a far subtler scenario where the maids, uneducated and frightened, were the film's most decent and heroic characters. In the Heat of the Night has worn well over the years but posing Tibbs as a man of nearly superhero status sure makes it easier to break down the basis for unfair prejudgments.

Perhaps it's because the ordinarily blustering Steiger plays the sheriff with restraint that he won the Best Actor Academy Award. His performance conveys the dilemma of a public servant not sure about the morals of his bosses but still willing to do their bidding, until someone with actual integrity comes along to, we hope, make him reevaluate and be a better man. This, too, causes conflict. Just when it feels as if the sheriff is bonding with Tibbs and, after a few shots of bourbon, acknowledging a little admiration, he lashes out when Tibbs suggests that they are both lonely men. Old habits die hard -- no self-respecting white man will tolerate a black man's pity or even empathy. Poitier's performance is a master class in the deployment of quiet and controlled rage as he uses silences the way others use yelling. Tibbs always pauses, thinking long and hard before answering questions and, in the silence, we read years of growing up in the South where the wrong answer could get you killed.

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