It’s the 1960s, an African-American detective (Poitier) from Philadelphia becomes reluctantly involved in a murder investigation in a small Mississippi town where the racial tension is almost palpable. With his life under threat and his Southern police partner (Steiger) holding dubious views on race, this is going to be the toughest of assignments.
Adapted by Stirling Silliphant from the 1965 novel by John Ball, it stars the first Black man to win a Best Actor Oscar (for Lilies of the Field 1963), Bahamian actor Sidney Poitier, then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood – he made To Sir, With Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the same year. Poitier signed on for a reduced fee, as United Artists had restricted the budget fearing they could not distribute the film in the American South. Method actor Rod Steiger, the choice of Canadian director Norman Jewison (United wanted George C. Scott) always wore his police cap and boots even when not shooting.
The film was shot in 1966 (after Dr King’s march on Selma) on location in southern Illinois, as Poitier refused to go south of the Mason-Dixon line after he and Harry Belafonte had been threatened in Georgia. (The large Sparta Farm Machine Co. signs locally led to the film’s fictional town being re-christened Sparta, Mississippi.) When Poitier agreed to film in Tennessee, the cast and crew had to stay at the Holiday Inn, the only hotel that would accept Black customers – the town’s main hotel was Whites only.
Despite studio fears the film was released throughout the USA and did reasonably well, and won multiple awards. The New York Film Critics Circle Award was presented to Jewison by Bobby Kennedy, who commented that the timing was right for this important picture. Six months later both Kennedy and Dr King had been assassinated; Jewison left the USA – “a country where they kill off their heroes” – shortly after.