By Dan Skip Allen
Sidney Poitier is one of the greatest Black actors of all time. His career is varied with great films such as Lilies of the Field, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, and Raisin in the Sun in his credits. His best film, though, is In the Heat of the Night, directed by Norman Jewison.
Philadelphia Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sydney Poitier) has to go down to tiny Sparta, Mississippi to investigate a murder but he gets arrested by hard-nosed police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Stiger). Having to prove his innocence to the police chief, he eventually joins forces with him to try to figure out who actually was the murderer of the victim. They reluctantly get along with each other on this journey.
Jewison creates an atmosphere of racism and prejudice throughout the film. Even though Poitier's character is a respected detective in Philadelphia, he is a third-class citizen in the South. He even has to defend his own name. "They Call Me Mr. Tibbs," is a very famous line from Poitier in the film. The investigation isn't about the murder, it's about how this Black man is daring to ask these southern white-privileged people questions about it. How dare he do this? It's pretty huge deal.
This film crossed so many cultural barriers at the time, even with the Academy Awards. This film won Best Picture in 1968 along with three other awards, but Poitier didn't win anything that year. His co-stars in both In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? were nominated for Best Actor, and while Stiger won the award, Poitier wasn't even nominated. It's a travesty. Although he did win an Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963, it would have been great to see him get nominated for this film.
Poitier has to do all the heavy lifting opposite Stiger, even getting slapped in the face by old man Endicott (Larry Gates). Jewison puts Poitier through his paces throughout the film. It's in the script, though, because it's adapted from the book by John Ball. In the era of civil rights, this film touched on so many difficult topics and everybody involved was part of a powder keg. It showed in the end product. Tensions were at an all-time high and Poitier had an uphill battle trying to do his job under these circumstances.
With everything going on around this film, Poitier gives the performance of a lifetime. Having to act opposite Stiger wasn't an easy task. Jewison had to be a soothing influence on this film. He was also the leader of this production that had other great aspects such as a score by Quincy Jones. The music was so good. The cinematography and editing worked very well as well. This film had everything going for it at a difficult time. Poitier was the glue that kept this film together. He was great in it as well.
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