DID YOU KNOW this Sydney Poitier film was released 50 years ago this month?
THEY CALL ME MISTER TIBBS! (1970) was released 50 years ago this month. Sidney Poitier’s iconic declaration from IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) was so poignant during the Civil Rights era, it became the title of the film’s 1970 sequel and remains one of the most recognizable movie references to this day, ranking #16 on AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time.
Poitier’s character “Virgil Tibbs” marked the first instance of a leading role series for an African American police detective, and the character remained a fixture in popular culture for nearly 30 years, both on screen and in its literary source by novelist John Ball. Poitier reprised the part in a third theatrical installment of the series, THE ORGANIZATION (1971), and Howard Rollins picked up the portrayal of Tibbs in a long-running television drama series titled IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, which aired from 1988 through 1995.
THEY CALL ME MISTER TIBBS! also marked the final film of the prolific character actor Juano Hernandez, who has been acclaimed as Hollywood’s first Afro-Latino movie star. Hailing from Puerto Rico, Hernandez moved to Brazil and the U.S. in an extraordinary career that included professional boxing, vaudeville, radio and an inaugural credited film role in Oscar Micheaux’s THE GIRL FROM CHICAGO (1932). Hernandez’s first major movie performance in INTRUDER IN THE DUST (1950) resulted in a Golden Globe nomination. Hernandez died on July 17, 1970, just over one week after the release of THEY CALL ME MISTER TIBBS! and two days before his 74th birthday.
The casting of leading black men as law enforcement officials became ubiquitous after Poitier’s ground-breaking success with Tibbs, and the archetype helped launch careers of stars such as Denzel Washington. However, it also prompted scrutiny of African American representation on screen. Despite Poitier’s fundamental contribution to IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and its Mister Tibbs franchise, he was not recognized at the time for this achievement, while his white co-star, Rod Steiger, received Best Actor Oscar® and Golden Globe awards for his performance of the racist police chief “Bill Gillespie.” Critics, including James Baldwin in his seminal essay The Devil Finds Work (1976), also noted that the Mister Tibbs series endorsed the apologetic and dangerously misleading perspective of its white, liberal filmmakers. Baldwin famously likened the forged friendship between a southern sheriff and a black detective to a forced Hollywood happy ending, or an “obligatory fade-out kiss.”
Learn more at the AFI Catalog.