Oscars flashback: ‘In the Heat of the Night’ wins Best Picture 50 years ago taking on racism in the south [WATCH]

Racial issues in the south. Small town police department. Best Picture nominee at the Oscars. Lead performance frontrunner to win. These are certainly descriptions of 2018 Oscar contender “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” starring Frances McDormand but they also describe the film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture 50 years ago: “In the Heat of the Night” (watch the video above).

With “Get Out” and “Three Billboards” as big awards hits for 2017 and “Moonlight” as Best Picture the previous year, it looks as though films dealing with racism and civil rights have risen to a new level of recognition from the Academy. One of the first to be embraced by Oscar voters was the 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night,” a crime drama about an African-American detective (Sidney Poitier) and bigoted police chief (Rod Steiger) in rural Mississippi.

Films like “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” the same year (also starring Poitier), though groundbreaking for their time, may seem dated to today’s audiences. But they were quite important landmarks in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in America. In fact, Poitier has repeatedly listed this film and his character of Virgil Tibbs as his personal favorite. The actor even reprised the role in two sequels: “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs” in 1970 and “The Organization” in 1971.

In 1967, many subjects still could not be openly discussed in the movies. Last year’s “Moonlight” is the story of a young, African-American gay man, and that would have never been made into a film in that time period. It was also still a segregated south at the time of shooting, and Poitier had to request that “Heat” be shot in the north following an incident he and friend Harry Belafonte had experienced with the KKK of Mississippi a year earlier.

That year’s Academy Awards ceremony was held on April 10, 1968. It was just one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The film won five Oscars out of seven nominations that evening:

Best Picture – Walter Mirisch (winner)
Best Actor – Rod Steiger (winner)
Best Director – Norman Jewison (lost to Mike Nichols for “The Graduate”)
Best Adapted Screenplay – Stirling Silliphant (winner)
Best Sound (winner)
Best Editing – Hal Ashby (winner)
Best Sound Effects – James Richard (lost to John Poyner for “The Dirty Dozen”)

In his acceptance speech for Best Actor, Steiger thanked his co-star Poitier and exclaimed “We shall overcome!” After “In the Heat of the Night” won Best Picture, host Bob Hope closed the night by saying “Peace is a challenge we must and will meet.”

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