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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.