As Sidney Poitier turns 84 this week, we look back on the role that defined him at the height of his onscreen powers, and at the movie that nabbed a slew of Oscars (though, oddly, not even a nomination for Poitier himself).
'In the Heat of the Night' (1967) certainly wasn't Poitier's first film tackling American race relations – that was 1950's 'No Way Out,' directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, in which the Bahamian-American actor played a prison doctor dealing with a viciously bigoted convict (Richard Widmark). Since Poitier was the leading black Hollywood actor during a time of budding social awareness and civil rights unrest, it was inevitable that many of his movies during that roughly 20-year era had racial subplots even when race wasn't a primary theme.
Though obviously limited by his circumstances, he bore this responsibility well, delivering many strong performances and indelible characters. None were more iconic than 'In the Heat of the Night''s Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective pressured into solving a murder in a small, Southern town.
Pre- 'Heat,' there had also been Martin Ritt's 'Edge of the City' (1957), in which Poitier and John Cassavetes play waterfront porters whose friendship is envied by their bigoted boss, and 1958's 'The Defiant Ones,' with Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped cons, literally chained to each other, who develop a grudging friendship.
During this era, Poitier also starred in the musical 'Porgy and Bess' (a notoriously bad singer, his vocals were dubbed) and both the Broadway play and film adaptation of 'A Raisin in the Sun,' brilliantly portraying the defeated Walter Lee Younger.
He made history in 1964 as the first black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar, for 'Lillies of the Field,' in which he played an itinerant construction worker who helps a group of rural nuns build a chapel. In 1965's 'A Patch of Blue,' his character's relationship with a young blind white woman -- an early onscreen interracial romance -- is threatened by others' ignorance and cruelty.
In 1967 Poitier released a trifecta of successful, socially-conscious films: 'To Sir with Love,' 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' and 'In the Heat of the Night.' Though all were great roles, 'Heat' not only gave him a deeply memorable character, but one of moviedom's most famous lines (which would become the title of the sequel):
With a screenplay by Sterling Silliphant and direction by Norman Jewison, 'In the Heat of the Night,' still packs a punch: Detective Tibbs is on his way back North after visiting his mother when he's picked up by a local cop at the Sparta, Mississippi, train station and accused of murdering a Midwestern businessman in town to open a new factory. Tibbs endures various humiliations, which don't lessen once his identity is cleared (he's called 'boy' and worse innumerable times by the townsfolk, who seem cartoonishly racist until you realize that people like this still exist today). Championed by the victim's wife (Lee Grant), he's pressed into helping the local police chief, Gillespie (the excellent Rod Steiger), with the investigation, then gets so caught up that he initially wrongly suspects the town fat cat, a horrific bigot.
At the film's heart is the fraught relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie, the latter conflicted between his customary pride and racism, and a growing respect for the black Northerner who's obviously a much better cop than he'll ever be.
Poitier was criticized during this period for playing idealized, desexualized "saintly" characters but Virgil Tibbs is not quite one of these. He's a tad arrogant, enjoying his superior skills and letting his own emotions interfere with the investigation ... in short, he's all too human. Poitier plays Tibbs with understatement and steely control, his eyes and strained voice conveying anger, humiliation and pained comprehension, until he's finally goaded into retaliation:
Though that scene may seem mild now, it was pretty revolutionary in 1967. With that slap, Tibbs heralded a new kind of black hero: coolly intelligent and able to fight back against white tyrants.
'In the Heat of the Night,' which nabbed Oscars for best picture, screenplay and actor (Steiger), was one of Poitier's last movies to tackle race relations head-on; it would spawn two lesser sequels, 'They Call Me MISTER Tibbs' and 'The Organization,' plus a TV series. Poitier would go on to direct several movies, many of them comedies (most successfully, 'Stir Crazy').
Today, of course, he's an American institution, admired for his pioneering efforts in Hollywood, immense talent and public service (his 2002 Honorary Academy Award was "in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being"). Virgil Tibbs is a big part of that legacy.