The Oscar success of “12 Years a Slave” harkens back to 1967, when another film about race in America won Best Picture: “In the Heat of the Night.”
Both films took the top prize without winning Best Director. Usually, this split is hard to predict as it is the result of an upset in one category or the other, like Roman Polanski winning for directing “The Pianist,” or “Crash” upsetting “Brokeback Mountain” for Best Picture. However, for both “12 Years” and “Heat” the result was consistent with the results throughout the season.
While “12 Years” swept up Best Picture prizes from the PGA, Critics’ Choice, Golden Globes, and BAFTA, it was Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity“) who kept winning the directing awards, including the DGA, all the way through to the Oscars.
“In the Heat of the Night” didn’t do quite as well on the awards circuit as “12 Years” — it only won Best Picture from the Golden Globes and New York Film Critics Circle before Oscar — but helmer Norman Jewison consistently lost Best Director to Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”): at the DGA Awards, BAFTAs, and Globes. Nichols’s subsequent win at the Oscars was the only victory for his film
There were also differences between the two outcomes: Unlike “12 Years,” “In the Heat of the Night” lost at BAFTA, while “Heat” racked up more Oscar wins (five compared to three for “12 Years”).
“In the Heat of the Night” star Sidney Poitier presented Best Director to Cuaron, and he seems to be a good luck charm when it comes to milestones for black films and filmmakers. He was on-hand to receive an Honorary Oscar in 2001, the same year Denzel Washington (“Training Day”) became only the second black Best Actor winner (Poitier, of course, was the first) and Halle Berry became the first black woman ever to win Best Actress.
This year Poitier was on hand to see “12 Years” become the first Best Picture winner directed by a black filmmaker (Steve McQueen) and the first told from an exclusively black point of view. While Poitier was the star of “Heat” and 1989 champ “Driving Miss Daisy” had a black lead also (Morgan Freeman), but those films had white co-leads who ended up winning the Oscars for them (Rod Steiger in “Heat,” Jessica Tandy in “Miss Daisy”).