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.