04 February 2009

12 Films to Watch in Honor of Black History Month

There is not unanimity about the continued appropriateness of Black History Month. And I am discounting objections raised by racists. Many people I've been acquainted with over the years, including African Americans, feel it is a form of tokenism, arguing that it reduces the appreciation of African American culture and history to one month. A way to ease the guilt felt by the white majority.

I've mixed feelings about the month myself. I taught U.S. History for 20 years. In my lessons the Black experience was so central so often (as I believed appropriate) that making any sort of special mention of African American history seemed superfluous. That being said I gladly participated in African American history month assemblies and special learning days. I gave workshops on the Negro Leagues and the evolving role of African Americans in movies.

For many years I have hoped that we were moving away from a time when anyone felt the need for African American History month. One would hope that the election of the country's first African American president would be a giant step in that direction. However one look at the composition of the United States senate or the board rooms of major corporations across the land would dispel that. Also the appalling statistics regarding poverty, drug use, incarceration rates and high school drop-outs in the Black community are a national embarrassment.

Many out of touch whites assumed that with the passage of Civil Rights Act and the increasing representation of Blacks in sports and entertainment that all was well. More will be similarly deluded now that Barrack Obama is president.

I don't pretend to be wise enough to know when integration will be economic. Nor can I hazard a guess as to when the number of African American men in college will far exceed their numbers in prison. Nor do I know how such a change will come about. Greater minds than mine (of which there are legions) can ponder these questions and hopefully affect change. Meanwhile we must all continue doing our part in working with young African Americans in trying to guide them to the best possible choices in life.

With that rather heavy preamble aside, I humbly offer a dozen films that relate to the Black Experience in the United States. This is not by any means an exhaustive list. You will notice a paucity of films from the early days of Hollywood. Sadly there was a criminal under utilization of African American talent in those days.

I welcome any comments regarding other worthy films. These are offered in no particular order.

Glory (1989). One of a small handful of films that makes we want to salute the flag. The mostly true story of the most famous all African American regiments to see action in the Civil War. It was their bravery in battle that helped inspire President Lincoln to insist upon the formation of more African American regiments. Matthew Broderick stars as Robert Gould Shaw the son of prominent Massachusetts abolitionists and the commander of the regiment. Excerpts from his Shaw’s actual letters home are read throughout the film. Denzel Washington won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Morgan Freeman and Cary Ewes also co star. We watch the formation of the 54th, their battles against racism just so that they can get into battle and some very realistic battle scenes. A great movie that I showed my students every year.

Amistad (1997). Is it possible that Steven Speilberg has ever directed a movie that was vastly underrated? Yes, and this is it. I’ve never understood why this fine film did not receive either more critical acclaim or box office success. Anthony Hopkins garnered a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his amazing portrayal of John Quincy Adams. The ubiquitous Morgan Freeman co stars. Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou are also part of a sterling cast. This is the true story of a Spanish slave ship that ran aground in the United States in 1839 after a successful slave rebellion. The movie follows the court trials climaxing with the case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue was the fate of the Africans. Would they be sold into servitude as originally inended or returned to Africa?

Imitation of Life (1934). This must have been downright revolutionary in 1934. Claudette Colbert stars as a young widowed mother struggling to get by in a man’s world. Along comes the usual: an African American housekeeper, Delilah in her case with a young daughter in tow. Nothing out of the ordinary yet. Not until the white lady and the maid join forces in a business venture and become fast friends in the process. Louise Beavers played Delilah and brought the necessary grace and dignity to a role that must have been a wonder to Black audiences of the time. Don't miss it and don’t make the mistake of watching the sappy 1959 remake.

Boyz n the Hood (1991). (Pictured above.) A ground breaking film from director John Singleton that spawned many imitators, none matching the power of this film. It is the story of a group of childhood friends growing up in the LA ghetto, facing various choices and meeting different consequent fates. Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne and Ice Cube highlight an excellent cast. The movie captures the tenuous state of life in the hood. The brotherhood and that contradictory violence that permeate life and the sense of despair and abandonment that many feel.

Bamboozled (2000). Director Spike Lee ruffled a lot of feathers with this film about a Black TV executive who tires to get fired and thus void his contract. He concocts the preposterous idea of a blackface minstrel TV show starring black actors. The idea is bought hook line and sinker. While Bamboozled is as much a statement on TV and media as anything else, it is a searing look at the price of one’s dignity and indeed one’s soul. I was among a handful who appreciated Bamboozled for its message which, while it is focused here on African Americans, has implications for us all. An amazing montage of black stereotypes form American culture towards the end of the film is stunning.

Do the Right Thing (1989). Spike Lee again. This is one of the most important films ever. It is not so much about the Black experience in America as it is about the nature of racism, prejudice and stereotypes in the minds of women and men. It is also about “choices” and the importance of doing what? The right thing. It did not earn an a Best Picture nomination in the year that the Oscar went to Driving Miss Daisy. Seriously.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Sidney Poitier is coming to dinner, that’s who. And he’s engaged to your pretty white daughter. Tame stuff today but a shocker 40 years ago. More than anything this is a time capsule of where America was (at least wealthy liberal America) in the late ’60’s. Along with a smooth, intelligent and handsome Poitier, the legendary duo of Hepburn and Tracy star as the parents. Stanley Kramer directed. The long forgotten Joey Drayton is the fiance/daughter (they coulda shoulda done better.) An interesting flick.

The Defiant Ones (1958). Stanley Kramer also directed this film. He was clearly a man unafraid of tackling tough issues. This film must have been a hard sell in 1958. But thankfully for audiences past and present it got made. Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are two escaped convicts who are chained together, Curtis is a virulent racist. The ultimate odd couple story. Given their enforced inseparability the two must work as a team to affect their escape. Eventually the chains are severed but a friendship has grown in their place to link the two. A wonderful film.

Ali (2001). One of the better sports bio pics of recent vintage. Will Smith stars as the title character a man who is in the estimation of many, yours truly included, The Greatest. Michael Mann directed the story of Muhammad Ali from his days as Cassius Clay the contender, through his first reign as champ, his battle against the draft through the Rumble in the Jungle. Smith was fantastic in the lead as was Jamie Foxx as Bundini Brown. Ali was certainly one of the most important figures of the late 20th century. I’ll never forget the day I met him and shook his hand. Ever.

Roots (1977). Needless to say this was a TV mini series and not a movie but I couldn’t exclude it. Alex Haley wrote the book upon which it was based tracing his ancestral roots from a West African village through slavery and emancipation. (It has been fairly convincing alleged that he cribbed the story, which would reflect poorly on Haley but not reduce the power of the story.) A who’s who from Hollywood -- albeit mostly from the TV side -- appeared in the sprawling ten hour production. Among the cast are the since disgraced OJ Simpson, Ed Asner, Louis Gossett Jr., Ben Vereen, LaVar Burton, Leslie Uggums, Lorne Greene and John Amos. Surprisingly powerful, realistic and believable for a TV production. Available in a new DVD print.

Stormy Weather (1943). Of the few feature length films with an all, as they said in those days, “Negro” cast and the best of the lot. In part because it was less guilty of playing to African American stereotypes of the time. It is a romping, stomping musical with an amazing cast. Lena Horne. Cab Calloway. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Fats Waller. Cab Calloway. Coleman Hawkins. Wow. Great music. Great fun.

Malcolm X (1992). A third entry from Spike Lee is the story of one of this country's most influential, controversial and misunderstood men, the former Malcolm Little. Denzel Washington gives his greatest performance (but he won his Oscar for Training Day, go figure). The movie follows Malcolm from his days as a gangster through imprisonment, conversation to the Nation of Islam, his rise as a preacher and his eventual shedding and exposing of Elijah Muhammad to embrace a truer form of Islam. It concludes with this assassination and the testimonies of those who knew him with archival footage and Ossie Davis reading the eulogy he read at Malcolm's funeral. An inspirational story to people of all colors.


Jess said...

I'd add "In the Heat of the Night" - Mr. Tibbs slapping a cop was pretty racy stuff when the movie came out. Also, just cause Sidney Poitier is amazing in it, Lilies of the Field. He's just terrific - and it shows on TCM fairly frequently.

tytärsi said...

Glory and Amistad provided some of the better days in middle school US history class.