In the Heat of the Night
By Barbara Shulgasser-Parker,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Oscar-winning police drama about racism has heavy themes.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Don't prejudge people based on appearances. The American South was an extremely dangerous place for black people and there may be parallels to today's police treatment of blacks and that population's higher-than-average rate of incarceration throughout the United States.
Positive Role Models
Virgil Tibbs is a poised, well-educated, and accomplished black man who is arrested for no reason while visiting a small Southern town. In the face of denigration and ignorance, he keeps his cool, underscoring the hot-headed stupidity and ineptitude of the whites around him. The police chief is a bigot who is shocked when faced with a black police officer with more knowledge and experience than he. He greets this fact with abusive, dismissive bluster until he realizes that he needs Tibbs' assistance. As he comes to respect Tibbs, he protects him from harm.
Violence & Scariness
A man is found dead with his head bashed in. Some blood is seen on the fingers of the deputy who discovers the body. A wealthy white man being questioned about the murder slaps Tibbs for perceived insubordination. Tibbs slaps him right back as if to demonstrate that he is an equal. The man sputters, "There was a time when I coulda had you shot," for Tibbs' defiance, which echoes the unassailable power slave owners had over their slaves. Angry, alcohol-fueled mobs of white men come after Tibbs with weapons. A wealthy cotton plantation owner has a statuette of a black jockey holding a light over the house's entry pathway, recalling slavery days.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
On sultry Mississippi nights, a 16-year-old girl poses naked behind her house's front windows so passersby can see her. Her breasts are strategically covered by the window's wood frame. The girl later is revealed to be pregnant and arrives at a place where she can obtain an illegal abortion.
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The "N" word, "nigra," "butt," "peckerwood."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Adults drink alcohol. Angry mobs fueled by alcohol come after Tibbs with weapons.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that In the Heat of the Night, an Academy Award-winning 1967 police drama set in Mississippi, may be an eye-opener for young viewers who know little about the systemic, open racism practiced only 50 years ago in the American South. Teens may view the blatant unfairness and unprovoked violence depicted here with alarm and outrage. Virgil Tibbs, a black homicide detective from Philadelphia, is arrested for waiting for a train while black. Whites won't shake his hand or serve him. Everyone calls him "boy." One slaps him and is shocked when Tibbs slaps him right back. The man notes that, not so long before, he could have had Tibbs shot for his disrespectfulness. A 16-year-old girl has underage sex (off screen) and goes to get an illegal abortion. She poses naked behind her house's front windows so passersby can see her. Her breasts are strategically covered by the window's wood frame. Alcohol fuels a drunken white mob coming to kill Tibbs. The "N" word is used several times.
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In the Heat of the Night
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What's the Story?
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT features Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), as a poised, well-educated, and accomplished black man wearing a suit and tie who is arrested while waiting for a train at a Sparta, Mississippi train station in 1967. The sheriff (Rod Steiger) questions him disdainfully, mocking his name and his affect, until Tibbs slowly reveals that he's a Philadelphia homicide detective down South visiting his mother, just trying to take the train back home. Embarrassment lies under the sheriff's continuing condescension, as well as his obvious understanding that in almost any measurable way, Tibbs is the superior man by far. Tibbs' boss offers Tibbs' assistance in the Sparta murder and while neither the sheriff nor Tibbs want to work together, the sheriff needs the help and begs Tibbs to stay. Tibbs' experience and scientific methods exonerate one wrongly arrested suspect and then another. All the while, the town's men of power and their underlings are plotting to get Tibbs out of the way before he digs up any corruption regarding the building of a new factory that will make Sparta a center of manufacturing and jobs. Several times armed men come after Tibbs but either the sheriff or circumstances save the day.
Is It Any Good?
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.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the basis for prejudice in In the Heat of the Night. Does it seem as if some people need to make themselves feel superior by putting others down? What does that kind of behavior have in common with bullying?
The movie showcases the way black people were mistreated in the South in the 1960s. Can you draw parallels to today's world where more black people have more opportunities than they did in the 1960s, yet at the same time far more black people are incarcerated than whites?
The movie sets up Tibbs as someone with more knowledge, experience, and self-control than any other character. Do you think his admirable qualities are designed to underscore the baselessness of bias?
- In theaters: October 3, 1967
- On DVD or streaming: January 15, 2008
- Cast: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant, Warren Oates
- Director: Norman Jewison
- Inclusion Information: Black actors
- Studio: United Artists
- Genre: Drama
- Character Strengths: Integrity, Self-control
- Run time: 109 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Award: Academy Award
- Last updated: February 13, 2023
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