Sidney Poitier's Mister Tibbs voted best performance by black actor in public poll

Actor’s turn in In the Heat of the Night tops the BFI’s Black Star poll, while industry experts pick Angela Bassett’s performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It

Sidney Poitier’s performance as police detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night has been named the British public’s favourite by a black actor in a new poll.

The BFI asked the public to vote on a shortlist of 100 performances, encompassing both film and TV, and also enlisted a panel of 100 industry experts for a separate vote.

Angela Bassett topped the critics’ poll for her portrayal of Tina Turner in Brian Gibson’s film What’s Love Got to Do with It, and also came ninth in the public vote.

Pam Grier came second in both the public and critics’ polls for her role as the eponymous lead in Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown, while the public placed Michael K Williams third for his role as Omar Little in The Wire, the only TV performance in the top 10.

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, 1997.
Homage … Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, 1997. Photograph: Rex/Miramax/Everett

In the Heat of the Night won the best picture Oscar in 1968, and best actor for Poitier’s co-star Rod Steiger, as the conniving southern police chief. Poitier – who became the first actor of colour to win best actor in 1964, for Lilies of the Field – makes a second appearance in the public list for his performance in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which he plays the fiance of an upper-class white woman meeting her disapproving parents.

The subject of black representation in film has been the subject of much public debate in recent years, most notably after no actors from ethnic minorities were nominated for Oscars in 2015 and 2016.

A University of Southern California study of 600 Hollywood films between 2007 and 2013 found that 14.2% of speaking characters were black, compared to 12.6% of the general US population. However, other ethnic minorities were markedly underrepresented, most notably Hispanics and Asians.

A recent BFI study (pdf) found that in the British film industry, 13% of films featured at least one black actor in a leading role and 41% featured at least one black actor in a named character role. At the last census in 2011, 3% of the UK’s population was black, although the proportions are higher in cities and rise to as high as 13.3% in London.

The BFI’s creative director, Heather Stewart, used a symposium at the London film festival to call for more diversity and roles for black actors in British film. “The number of lead roles for black actors has not really changed over 10 years,” she said, “and the types of films in which they have had leading roles suggests stereotyping. Colour-blind casting across genres does not really exist on the big screen, ultimately limiting representation.

“Diversity is one of the biggest issues facing film – audiences want to see the world in which we live reflected back at them.”

Michael K Williams as Omar in The Wire.
Michael K Williams as Omar in The Wire. Photograph: HBO

The public poll

  1. Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night, 1967)
  2. Pam Grier (Jackie Brown, 1997)
  3. Michael K Williams (The Wire, 2002-08)
  4. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, 2013)
  5. Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994)
  6. Samuel L Jackson (Pulp Fiction, 1994)
  7. Denzel Washington (Malcolm X, 1992)
  8. Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple, 1985)
  9. Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do with It, 1993)
  10. Sidney Poitier (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967)
Angela Bassett plays Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It.
Critics’ choice … Angela Bassett plays Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Touchstone

The industry poll

  1. Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do with It, 1993)
  2. Pam Grier (Jackie Brown, 1997)
  3. Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night, 1967)
  4. Denzel Washington (Malcolm X, 1992)
  5. Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple, 1985)
  6. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, 2013)
  7. Juanita Moore (Imitation of Life, 1959)
  8. Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones, 1954)
  9. Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets and Lies, 1997)
  10. Danny Glover (To Sleep with Anger, 1990)

The full results can be seen on the BFI site.


Alan Evans

The GuardianTramp

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