Hollywood today likes to consider itself bold because it includes language, sex, and violence in liberal quantities. Yet in many ways it has become startlingly risk-averse. Not only is its business model reliant on blockbusters and star vehicles, leading to an endless array of lukewarm sequels, but it has become less welcoming to women and minorities. The desire for guaranteed mammoth returns, at levels that would make Mexican drug cartels blush, has undercut basic storytelling.
But Virgil Tibbs retains his timely qualities. As a quintessential outsider, a man unconnected to the town where he’s investigating a crime, or to the people with whom he must work, he reflects the dislocation Americans feel coming to grips with the fragmented, often adversarial qualities of modern culture. Targeted for his skin color, arrested on exceedingly circumstantial evidence, his plight touches not only Blacks, but anybody ever targeted on flimsy pretexts by police bureaucrats.
Seems Sparta, Mississippi, isn’t equipped to handle a legitimate murder investigation. So eventually, when police chief Bill Gillespie clears Tibbs—after an absurdly lengthy alibi check, dragged out to maximize humiliation—and discovers Tibbs is a decorated homicide detective, he asks Tibbs to join the investigation. Well, he doesn’t ask, since he dislikes Blacks, outsiders, and newfangledness. His boss, the town mayor, demands he bring Tibbs aboard, which Tibbs’ superiors approve. Talk about unequal yoking.
|Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs|
Virgil Tibbs starts the story already off the force, on leave from the Philadelphia PD (changed from Pasadena, in John Ball’s original novel). Dragooned into the investigation by his own chief, at Sparta’s mayor’s request, Tibbs uses his best investigative skills. Apparently he never gives less than his best. But he never overcomes the angry, adversarial relationship with Sparta’s police department, whose members insist on calling him “boy” and treating him like an unwanted interloper.
Jewison’s movie, like Ball’s novel, is unstinting in its criticism of Southern American racism. Its depiction of the modern plantation system, in the form of local cotton baron Eric Endicott, doesn’t even pretend that it isn’t showing updated slavery practices. But Sparta, Mississippi, for all its shortcomings, isn’t exclusively opposed to African Americans. It simply hates outsiders; the deputy who first arrests Tibbs was trawling the local train station, assuming the thief would logically run.
By the closing scene, Gillespie does thank Tibbs and express the honor he feels having worked with such a fine cop. The smile shared between Sidney Poitier as Tibbs, holding his cardboard suitcase, and Rod Steiger as gum-chewing Chief Gillespie, is iconic. But one never stops wondering: would Gillespie have thanked Tibbs, or ever reversed his racist suppositions, if not forced to witness Tibbs’ investigative prowess? Probably not. His underlying racism probably hasn’t been resolved.
After a local bank robbery, police stopped me in a grocery store and questioned me, simply because my haircut resembled the suspect. I visibly couldn’t have been the suspect, who was older, shorter, and stockier than me, but because some suspicious neighbor phoned in about my hair, they had to investigate. I know, that’s not like being born into a permanent racial underclass, often systematically targeted by law enforcement. But ham-handed policing is painfully common.
That makes Virgil Tibbs a relevant character today. Not because his character faces a race-based struggle in 1967, but because the struggle he faces transcends race, place, or time. Chief Gillespie isn’t a bad chief because he targets Black men; he’s actually good at enforcing order, which is what he’s supposed to do. But he, like American police today, needs reminded that upholding the rules isn’t the same as bringing justice to America’s fractious streets.