This film, released by United Artists, is a murder mystery couched in racism; it was based upon the Edgar Award-winning 1965 novel of the same name authored by John Ball. Filmed during the Civil Rights Movement, Canadian director Norman Jewison wanted to present an anti-racist story where, despite difficulties, Blacks and Whites could successfully work together for a common cause and solution.
Set in 1966 in the fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi (there is an actual city of Sparta in Mississippi), the lead character, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) of Philadelphia, is initially arrested and detained by racist, local police for the murder of Phillip Colbert, a wealthy Chicago industrialist. Colbert had recently relocated to Sparta to build a factory. Upon questioning by the police chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), it is discovered that Tibbs is a leading Philadelphia homicide detective. With confirmation provided by Tibbs’ own police chief, who “suggests” that Tibbs assist in solving the case, the two law enforcement officers struggle, professionally and personally, to get to the truth and attain justice.