Cult Movies: Sidney Poitier gives a true powerhouse performance in In The Heat of The Night

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In The Heat of The Night
Ralph McLean

In The Heat Of The Night

THE recent passing of Sidney Poitier reminded me that I hadn't properly watched any of the classic films from that most eloquent and graceful of actor's illustrious career in a very long time.

It's often the way isn't it? It takes a great artist to pass on before we truly remember what made them so great in the first place. My journey of Sidney Poitier rediscovery took me to some interesting places and, oddly enough, to one year in particular: 1967 was a strangely significant year for the Bahamian-American actor.

Poitier had enjoyed huge success by then of course, rising to superstardom alongside Tony Curtis in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones in 1958 and becoming the first black male to land an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies Of the Field in 1963 – but 1967 was special.

In those 12 brief months, the man graced three of the most important films of that most game changing of decades. With To Sir With Love, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and In The Heat Of The Night he gifted us a trilogy of performances that, while clearly different in terms of subject and delivery, all dealt in a groundbreaking and taboo busting way with the issue of race division in the 20th century.

While all three films are well worth re-watching, for the purposes of this column I'll focus on In The Heat Of the Night.

Norman Jewison's Oscar-winner is a tale of a bigoted cop (Rod Steiger) who must deal with the racism ingrained within himself and society when a brutal murder shocks a small southern town. It's a superior thriller, charged with a heavy subject and delivered with real style and bravery.

Steiger picked up a Best Actor award from the Academy that year, with the film gathering up an impressive five Oscars in total, but it's Poitier's supremely dignified and effortlessly elegant performance that lives on in your mind.

Forced to hang around a train station while he waits for a connecting train on a journey to visit his mother, Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) finds himself suddenly arrested in connection with a murder that's been baffling the local police.

As a suave, be-suited black man in a small, deeply racist community, Tibbs initially makes a perfect suspect for the bitter Chief Gillespie (Steiger), but his cool demeanour in the face of such blatant bigotry and the fact he's a cop himself who can prove he didn't do it leads him to help out in the mission to find the real killer.

There are obvious echoes of the aforementioned The Defiant Ones in this tale of racism exposed, but there's a special quality to the uneasy alliance of Tibbs and Gillespie that sets this apart. Dated only by the odd 1960s hipster expression – Tibbs is fond of the occasional "ya dig?" – this still feels relevant and pretty raw in terms of subject matter today.

Cool, calm and able to bring down casual racist culture through his innate intelligence and unswaying dignity, Poitier gives a truly powerhouse performance here. We will never see his like again.

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