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Movie Mom

Movie Mom

Black History Month Movies

posted by Nell Minow

Instead of the usual list of movies about famous historical figures, I thought this year I would suggest some movies that are themselves a part of the history of African-Americans as well as a part of the history of movies and of American culture. While some of these films reflect the racism of their era, they give us a chance to see some of the finest performers of the 20th century — and to talk about what their experience was like and about what has and has not changed.

1. Cabin in the Sky This was the first all-black movie made for a mainstream audience by a major Hollywood studio. While its script is lightweight at best, it is still a wonderful opportunity to see some of the most significant performing artists of that era, including Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Louis Armstrong. It was the also the first film directed by Vincente Minnelli.

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2. Stormy Weather As with “Cabin in the Sky,” the reason to see this film is the chance to watch legendary greats like Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, and the astonishingly athletic Nicholas Brothers.

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3. Lilies of the Field Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win an Best Actor Oscar for his performance in this wonderful film about a handyman who builds a chapel for a group of German nuns.

4. Gone With the Wind Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American performer to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in this grandest of epics. Relegated to playing maids (and in this movie a slave), Ms. McDaniel brought to each of her roles a dignity and grace that is all the more extraordinary considering the bigotry that she faced on and off screen.

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5. Baadasssss Cinema – A Bold Look at 70’s Blaxploitation Films Black cinema exploded during the 1970’s and this documentary about the “blaxploitation” era has a sympathetic but clear-eyed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of these films.

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6. Baadasssss! The “blaxploitation” era began with a film called “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song,” a raw, confrontational film made by Melvin Van Peebles about a powerful man who defied “the man” to live by his own code. His son Mario Van Peebles wrote, directed, and starred in this film about how it got made.

7. Do the Right Thing President and Mrs. Obama saw this incendiary movie on their first date. It is a brilliant film and it has become a cultural touchstone. It is a tough, smart, and very provocative film that included an electrifying moment when the character played by Lee himself held up a trash can and aimed it at the glass window of a pizzeria owned by an Italian named Sal (Danny Aiello). People are still arguing about what happened next.

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8. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire One of 2009’s top films is a searing story of a hideously abused girl, inspired by the lives of the students taught by author/poet Sapphire. Like any provocative story, it has been controversial and some have called it exploitative. But it is a heartfelt story, beautifully performed.

9. The Princess and the Frog Disney’s first African-American princess story is one of the studio’s best, with an endearing heroine and a rollicking score.

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10. Diary of a Mad Black Woman Tyler Perry has quickly become one of the most powerful forces in entertainment, with successful theater, DVD, television, and movie productions. The success of his first theatrical release took Hollywood by surprise — they still do not understand the power of stories that come from the African-American experience without going through the filter of the studio “experts.” This film has Perry’s unique mash-up of high drama, low comedy, romance, spirituality, and of course the indomitable Madea played by Perry himself.

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  • Wendy

    My husband and I caught Lilies of the Field a couple of years ago on “On Demand.” We both thoroughly enjoyed the film, but were especially impressed with how much humor was in it.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/ Nell Minow

    Thanks, Wendy! I love that film and it has humor and wisdom. It is not about race — it is about people, and pride, and dreams, and learning to accept as well as to give. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  • Jessica Sandlin

    I really appreciate what you do here, Nell! It’s not historical (but will be), but I think Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married is one of my top ten favorite movies, simply for the issues it deals with. He touches on things that cross racial lines.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/ Nell Minow

    Thanks, Jessica! I love Tyler Perry and am really looking forward to “Why Did I Get Married Two!” I love the way he deals with issues with such directness and sincerity and he has many of my favorite performers — who are too often neglected by other film-makers. It was hard to pick which Perry movie to include on this list, but as it was about history, I thought it should be one of the Medea movies. I think my personal favorite, though, is “Daddy’s Little Girls.”

  • http://reelfanatic.blogspot.com Keith Demko

    Not surprisingly, a great list .. the only possible addition I would make would be “Killer of Sheep,” still the best movie I know of about black life in America

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/ Nell Minow

    Absolutely right, Keith — and I should also have added “Nothing But a Man.”

  • Kent Koopman

    As part of Black History Month we watch video presentations demonstrating different aspects of the Black Experience in America. This year we wanted to show our grandchildren a movie we saw several years ago. This movie told the story of Pullman Porters on the railroads, their low pay, the working conditions, and their efforts to finaly unionize. Do you happen to rememember this movie>
    Thank you,
    Kent and Darlene Koopman

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/ Nell Minow

    That excellent film is “10000 Men Named George” and it is available on Amazon and Netflix. Enjoy!

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