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.
Every year, Turner Classic Movies salutes the Oscars with a month full of classics and rarely-seen gems that were nominated for or won Oscars, not just for the acting and directing awards but for costume design, cinematography, and more. Today features three films about the same character — Robert Shaw, Charles Laughton, and Richard Burton all played Henry VIII in Oscar-nominated or awarded films. The most-nominated actor gets a special tribute. (Do you know who it is? Here’s a hint: “Five Easy Pieces,” “Terms of Endearment,” and “Reds.”) There’s also a tribute to the actress who had the most nominations without ever winning, Deborah Kerr. And there are enticing categories like “Oscar Falls in Love,” “Husbands and Wives,” and one for “Love at First Site.” Every movie on the schedule is worth watching, so get our your calendars and go through the whole schedule.
Sam Rockwell gives one of the best performances of the year as Kenny Waters, a man wrongly convicted of murder for eighteen years until his sister was able to prove that he was innocent and get him released. Betty Ann (Hillary Swank) and Kenny were two of nine children from seven fathers raised in a succession of foster homes. She was a high school dropout and new mother when he went to prison. She went back to school, graduated from college and law school, passed the bar, and with the help of Cardozo Law School’s Innocence Project, was able to prove through DNA evidence that the blood found at the crime scene was not his.
Rockwell is mesmerizing as a man whose kind heart and family loyalty sometimes suffer from his impulsively confrontational behavior. He conveys at every stage the weight of his experience in prison as we see him over the 18-year period. His frustration, longing, despair, his fear of hoping too much mingled with his unquenchable pride in his sister are all heartbreakingly evident. He shows us why he was one of the local police department’s favorite “usual suspects” but he also shows us why someone would spend her life working on his behalf, even after everyone tells her to move on.
Director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray do a fine job of shaping the material, giving us a sense of the characters’ past experiences, the strength of their connection, and the press of time. The cast includes the reliable support of Minnie Driver as Betty Ann’s law school classmate and loyal friend and Juliette Lewis, outstanding as a recanting witness.
Swank, who co-produced, is sincere and dedicated if not ideal casting for this role. She has gravitated lately to a series of heroic characters, though her best work has been in more damaged or fragile roles. A high school dropout in real life, she is drawn to characters who exemplify education and achievement. But she gives us no sense of school as anything but an obstacle course. Her learning is not tied in any way to expanded understanding; she seems to have no curiosity about the law and no passion for anything but freeing her brother. We see the impact of her single-mindedness on her husband and sons but not how their reactions affect her. The story is one of triumph that cannot help but move us, but as a real-life character who gives everything, Swank does not give us enough.