Along with Harry Belafonte and a few others, Sydney Poitier was a pioneer in Hollywood when African-Americans found it difficult to get serious roles and were often restricted to playing cardboard cut-out man-servants, pimps, villains and so on. Poitier was the first African-American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field (1963).
Although probably he became a somewhat marginalised figure with the rise of militant political black activism in the late 60s and 70s, his central role in establishing a meaningful black presence in Hollywood should never be underestimated or forgotten. One of his most memorable films was In the Heat of the Night, directed in 1967 by Norman Jewison. Passing through Sparta, Missouri, Philadelphia-based Police Detective Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is wrongly accused of a murder. He soon proves his innocence and stays on in this small Southern town to play the leading role in the investigation, alongside the initially sceptical Police Chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger).
Constantly finding himself up against racism and hostility, Tibbs eventually finds the killer. The film provided some memorable scenes and a line of dialogue which has stood the test of time:
Gillespie: “That’s a funny name [Virgil] for a nigger boy from Philadelphia! What do they call you up there?”
Tibbs (annoyed): “They call me Mister Tibbs!”