February 20, 1927 – Sidney Poitier:
“For the first 10 years of my life in the Bahamas there were no mirrors or glass, so I never had the chance to see a reflection of myself. I saw myself in a mirror in a Florida store and my heart actually started racing. I was particularly happy with my teeth. I looked at myself for a very long time.“
In The Heat Of The Night (1967) stars Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a black Philadelphia homicide detective stranded in the simmering summer in the sleepy town of Sparta, Mississippi, working with, or against, the bigoted white sheriff played by Rod Steiger, as they try to solve the murder of a white businessman. Along the way, a white cotton plantation owner named Endicott (Larry Gates) objects to being considered a suspect. He slaps Tibbs, and in a reactive flash that shocked audiences, Tibbs delivers a fiercer, harder slap back to Endicott, and it became the slap heard around the world.
In The Heat Of The Night (1967) is a well-made tense detective story with an innovative score by Quincy Jones, directed by Norman Jewison from a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant. The film’s poster tagline proclaimed: “They got a murder on their hands. They don’t know what to do with it.“
It was shot in sultry color by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who had just filmed the black and white Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). The film was a milestone in 1960s America. A movie with a non-white actor in a lead role, was so controversial that it couldn’t be filmed in the South, so the sets were recreated in various small towns in Illinois.
Shocking for the era, In The Heat Of The Night was nominated for seven Academy Awards and received five: Best Picture, Best Actor for Steiger, Best Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Editing. It won over Bonnie And Clyde and director Mike Nichols‘ The Graduate, and the other Poitier project, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, another controversial liberal-minded film, this one about inter-racial marriage which was still illegal in 17 States until that year. Poitier didn’t receive a nomination for either film. Steiger had stiff competition from Warren Beatty in Bonnie And Clyde, Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Jewison failed to take home the Best Director Oscar, instead, Nichols won, presumably because he had failed to win the previous year for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The film’s other losing nomination was for Best Sound Effects for James A. Richard, despite the impact of that slap.
My point is, as always with the Academy Awards, the right people win for the wrong picture in the wrong year. Poitier gave the most nuanced and inventive performance of 1967.
In The Heat Of The Night was something new in films set in the American South. It offered a tough, edgy vision of a town that seemed to hate outsiders more than itself, reflecting the uncertain mood of the country as the Civil Rights Movement took hold. It was a surprise box-office and critical hit. My parental units took me to see it at a drive-in theatre, so I missed the audience reaction, but I was still stunned seeing a top black actor physically strike back at a white guy.
More astonishing, Poitier had three films playing that year, To Sir, With Love had been released just two months earlier, with Poitier as a teacher winning respect in a tough London school.
Poitier reprised his Virgil Tibbs character in two other films: They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971). In The Heat Of The Night was adapted into a television series in 1988, with Carroll O’Connor as the sheriff and gay actor Howard Rollins as Tibbs.
Poitier will always be noted for being the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, winning for the nun flick Lilies Of The Field (1963). When Poitier went on stage to collect his Oscar, Ann Bancroft, presenting him the award, gave him a kiss. Conservatives were outraged.
Another black man wouldn’t win again until Denzel Washington in 2001. In 90 years, there have only been 22 nominations for black men as Best Actor. In 2018, there are two: Washington for Roman J. Israel, Esq. (his sixth) and Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out. Last year, Mahershala Ali was nominated for Best Supporting for Green Book, but not Best Actor. This year there were no black men nominated. Poitier is the oldest living man to have won the Academy Award for Best Actor.
2002 was a landmark Academy Award ceremony: It was the first time two African-Americans both took home two acting Oscars, and the only time an African-American woman has won Best Actress (Halle Berry). It was also the year that the Academy decided to give Poitier an honorary Oscar. Washington thanked the icon later in the evening, after Poitier paid homage to those who broke down barriers in the film industry: “… others who have had a hand in altering the odds, for me and for others”. An entire era of struggle in a single five-minute speech.
Yet, it was the current of open racism at the time and the controversial aspects of simply being a black man that Poitier put to the test in that one remarkable year, 1967.
For a while, Poitier was the only black male being cast in major roles. Poitier:
“It is hard to imagine now how different life was then. Many hospitals in the American South refused even to admit black patients in those days. And later in life I had run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan and all the segregation. But I refused to become bitter. It was a fact of life at that time and I knew in my heart that things would change for the better.“
Poitier’s life began with a remarkable bit of timing. He was born prematurely in Miami, giving him American citizenship. His parents were visiting from the Bahamas, a British colony, selling tomatoes. He lost 23 family members when Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas last September.
He moved back to Florida when he was 15 years old to work odd jobs. As a delivery boy he was ordered by a resident to the back door because no black person was allowed to knock on a front door. Instead, he left the parcel on the doorstep. That night the Ku Klux Klan came looking for him.
So, at 16, Poitier moved to New York City where he got a job as a dishwasher. He learned to read. He slept in pay toilets in bus stations. He joined the American Negro Theatre, receiving acting lessons in exchange for working as a janitor for the theater. He finally made his stage debut in an ANT production filling in for Harry Belafonte. In 1946, Poitier appeared in their Broadway production of Lysistrata to great acclaim. He toured in the ANT production of Anna Lucasta, an all-black adaptation of Eugene O’Neill‘s Anna Christie.
“I was in my 20s before reading a book. I knew nothing of acting and found it difficult to read aloud. But I concentrated on improving both my life and my acting.“
His first major film role was as a doctor treating a white bigot in No Way Out (1950), a film noir directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Poitier soon became the go-to actor for controversial roles that dared to show a black man as powerful and articulate. In Blackboard Jungle (1955), he portrayed a troubled but promising student at an inner-city school.
He received his first Academy Award nomination, plus he won a BAFTA Award for The Defiant Ones (1958) in which he and Tony Curtis are shackled together as chain-gang escapees. His first leading role was in the musical Porgy And Bess, co-starring with Dorothy Dandridge the first African-American to be Oscar nominated for Best Actress. The film adaptation of the play A Raisin In The Sun (1961) made Poitier a top box-office star.
While he helped with breaking down barriers for black people in film, Poitier was criticized for not being more politically radical in the late 1960s.
Poitier teamed up with Belafonte for the Western Buck And The Preacher in 1972, which he also directed. In 1980, Poitier directed the hit comedy Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, the first black-directed film to make over $100 million.
In the early 1980s, a con artist called David Hampton turned up on the Manhattan party scene claiming to be Poitier’s son. He defrauded people out of food, money and lodgings before being caught and imprisoned. His story became the source material for the 1990 Broadway play Six Degrees Of Separation, made into a very good film with Will Smith in 1993.
Of his late period acting roles, I have a real soft spot for Sneakers (1992) a crafty comedy caper where he stars with Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, and River Phoenix.
In 2009, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor (until the mashed mango gave it to pill-popping Rush Limbaugh), from his friend President Barack Obama.
In 2011, the Film Society of Lincoln Center honored Poitier with their Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1982, he was given the Golden Globe‘s Cecil B. DeMille Lookalike Award, plus he has a 1992 AFI Life Achievement Award, a 1995 Kennedy Center Honor, and a 1999 SAG Life Achievement Award.
Poitier was made a Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1974, which entitles him to use the title to Sir, with love.