Saturday, February 25, 2017

Virgil Tibbs Confronts the Racism of a Small Southern Town In the Heat of the Night

This is the novel upon which the movie In the Heat of the Night was based. Set in a small town in South Carolina in the early 1960s, the book opens with the discovery of a body lying in the highway late one night. The victim is a prominent musician who had been active in organizing a music festival which many hoped would revive the fading fortunes of the town. His death is thus a blow to the hopes of the entire community.

The police chief, a man named Gillespie, is new to the job. Previously a jailer in Texas, he was hired by the town council basically because they could hire him cheap. He's never been a police officer before and has no experience as a homicide investigator, so he's basically clueless here. Not knowing what else to do, he orders his principal deputy to look for anyone attempting to leave town. In checking the train station, the deputy discovers a black man waiting for the next train. The deputy puts the man up against the wall, frisks him, and discovers a wallet full of money.

Looking no further, the deputy takes the man to the station and presents him to the chief as the logical murderer. The chief joins in the assumption, principally because he believes that no black man could have ever honestly earned the amount of money in the wallet. But then it turns out that the suspect, Virgil Tibbs, is, in fact, a police officer from Pasadena, California. He's on his way home after visiting his mother.

The chief calls his counterpart in Pasadena and discovers that Tibbs is not only a police officer, but a skilled homicide investigator. The Pasadena chief offers to loan Virgil's services to Gillespie, if he can be of any help. The notion that he might accept help from a black man is clearly anathema to Gillespie, but he has no idea how to solve this crime on his own and, given the high profile of the victim, Gillespie knows that if the murder is not solved he will most likely be out of a job. Accordingly, he swallows his pride and allows that Virgil might "assist" him in his investigation.

Virgil himself is torn. At one level he simply wants to get out of town as quickly as possible and get back to Pasadena where he doesn't face the kind of prejudice and discrimination that confronts him in South Carolina. On the other hand, though, he's obviously tempted to show up these racists and solve the crime when they will never be able to do so. In the end, he agrees to stay long enough to see the case through, and this book winds up being not nearly as much of a murder mystery as it is an examination of the implications of race in the deep South in the early 1960s. Virgil will suffer repeated insults and will face grave physical danger because of his race, but the dignity and intelligence with which he responds is really a timeless example for people of any race.

Inevitably, the movie takes some liberties with the book, but overall, it's a very good adaptation. Sidney Poitier is brilliant in the role of Virgil Tibbs, but plays the character with a bit more of an edge than the Tibbs of the novel. Rod Steiger is also perfect as Gillespie, and reading the book after seeing the film, it's impossible not to see the two actors when thinking of the characters. 

Both the book and the movie move swiftly with no wasted time or space, but one wonders whether it would be possible to publish this book or make this movie in the present day. Would audiences be willing to accept a black character who responds as calmly as Tibbs does to the discrimination that confronts him? Would they not insist that he react much more forcefully against it? Whatever the case, both the book and the movie have held up very well and are still as entertaining and as instructive as they were in the middle 1960s.

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