To mark this week’s official launch of its BLACK STAR season, the BFI announced that Sidney Poitier’s critically-acclaimed and seminal performance as Detective Virgil Tibbs in, In the Heat of the Night (dir. Norman Jewison, 1967) has been voted the public’s Favourite Black Star Performance in a poll which included 100 performances spanning over 80 years in film and TV.

Running alongside the public poll, a separate poll of over 100 industry experts voted for Angela Bassett’s Oscar®-nominated performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It (dir. Brian Gibson, 1993). UK Public Poll Pam Grier followed in second place with her terrific turn as the titular character in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown – an homage to the 1970’s era of Blaxploitation films in America;

Michael K. Williams was number three with his unforgettable portrayal of the legendary Omar Little, the openly gay, notorious stick-up man with a strict moral code feared by drug dealers across the city of Baltimore, in the socially and politically charged hit television series The Wire. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor followed in fourth with his visceral portrayal of Solomon Northup, his break-out performance in Steve McQueen’s ground-breaking, Oscar®-winning true story, 12 Years A Slave; and Morgan Freeman rounded out the top five with his acclaimed, quiet and layered performance in Frank Darabont’s Oscar®-nominated cult classic, The Shawshank Redemption.

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The Top 10 Favourite Black Star Performances voted by the public:

  1. Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night, 1967)
  2. Pam Grier (Jackie Brown, 1997)
  3. Michael K. Williams (The Wire, 2002-2008)
  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)

From Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It to Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction and Denzel Washington in Malcom X, the poll’s top 10 results include an array of fan favourites, critically-acclaimed and award-winning performances. They vary in their diverse subject matter and characters – exploring racism, sexuality, violence, Blaxploitation, civil rights, music, poverty, love, politics, to name just a few.

“Sidney Poitier’s iconic performance lights up a thrilling film, the scalding power of which hasn’t dimmed in the near half-century since it was released. In his own inimitable way, Poitier imbues Mister Tibbs with poise, power and endless reserves of dignity — he takes the high road when others choose to go low, but stands for no nonsense either. Tibbs is as much of a hero for our times as he was for his, and the results of this poll only confirm that fact.”

Ashley Clark, BFI Black Star season programmer Baroness Floella Benjamin OBE, DL, one of the poll’s industry experts and known for her breadth of work and great contribution to British film, television, literature, theatre and politics also commented on Sidney’s Poitier’s performance, “To me, he is the finest black actor of our time and has been truly inspirational.”

In the Heat of the Night, which will be re-released by Park Circus from 18 November in select cinemas across the UK as part of the BFI’s BLACK STAR season, won five Oscars® in 1968, including Best Picture, Best Actor (for Rod Steiger), Best Screenplay and Best Editing. Directed by Norman Jewison, the film is not only a hard-hitting murder mystery, but also entertaining, atmospheric and insightful in its reflection of American society at the time. Undoubtedly one of the key reasons for the film’s success was Sidney Poitier, who is devastatingly cool and charismatic as Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs. Tibbs arrives in a small Southern backwater to visit his mother but becomes embroiled in a murder investigation when he’s picked up by the local police simply for the ‘crime’ of being black. When Tibbs’ profession is confirmed, he’s teamed with a racist redneck sheriff (Steiger) to help with the investigation – a riveting partnership that reflects the era’s desperately strained race relations.

Over 100 industry experts, including film critics, film festival programmers, filmmakers, actors and cultural experts shortlisted the performances, while the ultimate winner was decided by the public.

While this was by no means an exhaustive list of stand-out performances, it is a pertinent reminder of the rich history of great performances by black actors, and the impact of black actors in telling memorable stories that connect with global audiences through their creation and portrayal of unforgettable characters.

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Industry Expert Poll

The industry experts also voted from the shortlist for their Top 10 Favourite Black Star Performances, selecting as their number one choice, Angela Bassett’s captivating and powerful, Oscar®-nominated performance in Brian Gibson’s What’s Love Got to Do with It. The Top 10 Favourite Black Star Performances voted by industry experts:

  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)

Ashley Clark commented, “Topping the critics’ poll is Angela Bassett who, as Tina Turner in the searing biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It, gave a performance for the ages—vigorous, vulnerable and vivacious.”

British actress Pearl Mackie, who also contributed as an industry expert to the poll and who will be co-starring in the upcoming season of Doctor Who shared her thoughts on Angela Bassett’s performance, “This film remains vividly etched in my memory. The violence that Anna Mae (Turner) suffers at the hands of her husband Ike is brutal and humiliating, but what really struck me is the gnawing inner turmoil Bassett depicts so beautifully that this monster attacking her is the man she desperately loves.”

The BFI’s BLACK STAR season, which will run until the end of the year, is the UK’s biggest season of film and television dedicated to celebrating the range, versatility and power of black actors. The season’s aim is to bring the work of black actors to a new generation of UK audiences, helping to reposition them and their performances in our collective memory.


The results have been published in full online at BFI Black Star where you will also see the full programme of events.