'They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!' Sidney Poitier Demands Respect

Entertainment | October 6, 2019

When Sidney Poitier stepped onscreen as Virgil Tibbs in In The Heat of the Night (1967) he presented an arresting figure the audience to connect to, but the pinnacle of his time onscreen happens when he faces down a crew of racist policemen who are making fun of his name. When he’s asked what he’s called in Philadelphia, he tells them, “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” Aside from being one of the most recognizable quotes from film history, the line speaks to the experience of minorities who have to put up with racist attitudes in rural America. The quote isn’t just good, it’s important and powerful.

The film directly references America’s racial unrest

Source: (United Artists)

In the Heat of the Night was released in 1967, the height of the civil rights movement, and its story of a black detective from Philadelphia wrangling with the racist attitudes of a small southern town are unfortunately just as prescient as they are today. The tension between Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger as they investigate a murder in small-town Mississippi is the peak of potboiler drama. Directed by Norman Jewison in the mid-1960s, the film directly deals with the racial tensions of the era which makes Poitier’s delivery of the famous “Mr. Tibbs” quote so nuanced. 

The quote comes from one of the most intense scenes in the film

Source: (United Artists)

Mr. Tibbs is introduced to the audience when he arrives at the train station in the small Mississippi town, he’s quickly arrested under suspicion of murdering wealthy industrialist Phillip Colbert simply because he’s black. Tibbs is brought into the station where it’s revealed that he’s actually a detective from Philadelphia. Chief Gillespie is endlessly tickled by the fact that Tibbs is a detective and asks what they call him up in Philadelphia. Tibbs grows frustrated and replies, "They call me Mister Tibbs!" It’s so cathartic when Tibbs tosses out this line, it’s as if he’s speaking for the whole audience. 

The line is about saying Tibbs saying that he’s a real person

Source: (United Artists)

Initially, the line was meant to be a funny, offhand remark, but when it was delivered by Poitier it took on resonance and meaning that speaks to the heart of the black experience in America. No one in Sparta, Mississippi, sees Tibbs as a human being. He’s considered a killer out of the gate simply because he’s new in town and not white. When he exclaims, “They call me Mister Tibbs” he’s not only liberating himself from the racist beliefs of the small-minded police, but he’s showing the other characters and the audience that he won’t be intimidated by ignorance or racism. 

The racial tensions on set were real

Source: (United Artists)

Going into the film’s production Sidney Poitier only had one demand - he didn’t want to shoot below the Mason-Dixon Line. He’d had a bad experience while in the south with Harry Belafonte and didn’t want to be put through that again. The film’s director told The Hollywood Reporter

All my films, I try to make them believable, and the first thing I have to do is find a believable location.’ And he said, ‘Well, I'm not going south of the Mason-Dixon line.’ And he said it with such emphasis that I realized it was very important to him. I said, ‘Why is that?’ And he says, ‘I had an unsettling experience with Harry Belafonte in Georgia, where our car was chased and we were threatened, and I don't want to go down there.’ So I said, ‘I’ll do my best to stay north of the Mason-Dixon line. What can I say? I want you to do the picture.’

The real-life tensions on set had to have made the scene where Tibbs confronts the racist police of Mississippi even tenser.

The line spawned a franchise around Virgil Tibbs

Source: (United Artists)

Aside from being counted as one of the top 20 quotes in the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes, “They call me Mister Tibbs” was elevated from a simple line to the title of the sequel to In the Heat of the Night. They Call Me Mister Tibbs! was released in 1970 and rather than place Detective Tibbs in the rural south, it follows him to San Francisco where he investigates a street preacher who’s suspected of murdering a prostitute. Tibbs returned in 1971's The Organization where he sticks around the bay area to hunt down a group of "urban revolutionaries."

Tags: Famous Movie Scenes | Famous Quotes From The 1960s | Rod Steiger | Sidney Poitier | Best Picture Winners

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.