Norman Jewison’s Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night is set to be adapted for television by Joe Robert Cole, the writer and producer of 2016’s hit mini-series The People v OJ Simpson. The show, which is currently in the early stages of development at MGM Television, will revive the story of detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who rails against the prejudice he receives from his peers as they try to solve a murder case in a small Mississippi town.
Based on a 1965 novel by John Ball, the film is remembered less for its gripping whodunit plot and more for its unflinching look at racism in rural America at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Fifty years one, it still packs a serious political punch. Together Jewison and Poitier evocatively capture the stifling atmosphere of the Deep South; the heat as oppressive as the archaic social codes of the time.
Initial exchanges between Tibbs and his adversary, the bigoted Police Chief Gillespie (Rob Steiger), simmer with mutual spite before exploding in fits of bilious racism. And while the acting is perhaps a little stagey by today’s standards, Poitier’s iconic declaration of agency and authority (“They call me Mr Tibbs”) endures as one of cinema’s most stirring moments.
It will be interesting to see how closely Cole chooses to stick to the source material, and whether his show will have anywhere near the same level of cultural impact, although the fact that his is reportedly set to update the era and setting suggests that he’s not interested in doing a straightforward remake. By transposing the story to present-day America, but retaining the original title, Cole makes a clear statement of intent: the racial conflict and rampant discrimination at the heart of this story is no less prevalent today than it was half a century ago.
Published 17 Jan 2017
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