What movies best share the Black American experience?
I love how in the last couple of years we’re getting various perspectives from multiple time periods about black life. It’s not just slave movies, more than hood films. And thankfully we don’t exist in a world where the Black American experience is solely represented by Tyler Perry comedies.
For this year’s feature, I decided to do something different and look at the Black America Experience through Cinema. More specifically, could a person get a greater appreciation and understanding of Black America solely from films?
There was a loose criteria. Documentaries were out since I wanted feature films. Also, movies that covered numerous historical time periods like Lee Daniels’ The Butler didn’t qualify. The films largely needed to be a snapshot of a specific point in Black America history.
Joining me on this effort is my longtime friend Joe Carlos. Back in college, Joe was a huge movie buff. Joe actually got me interested in the various aspects of making movies and caring about them more than just saying I liked it or I hated it. So in a very real sense, Joe was a major influence on me getting into reviewing movies so it was fun collaborating with him on this project.
We didn’t approach this from a decade by decade look, but it was interesting seeing how the narrative has evolved over the years. I’ve got a feeling we’ll be adding to this as the years go by. Call this Volume 1. Hope you enjoy.
1840s: 12 Years a Slave (2013)
I didn’t want to bog the list down with a ton of slave-era films so narrowing it down was tricky. Ultimately, I went with one of the more recent looks at slavery thanks to its unique perspective of a free man that gets forced into slavery.
Steve McQueen’s harsh, unfiltered examination of the horrors of slavery told through the eyes of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is haunting and unforgettable.
This outsider approach to the atrocities makes Solomon’s tales more tragic because he remembers a better life. One that didn’t regard him as less than human. The performances here are stirring and Lupita Nyong’o’s debut is so powerful that she earned a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.
1862: Glory (1989)
One of the enduring themes of the Black America experience is how African-Americans are treated in wartime. In the face of a major conflict, be it the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I and II, Korean, Vietnam, etc., black men are recruited to join the war effort and defend their country and be content with the status quo afterward.
Glory examined The Civil War’s first all-black volunteer unit as they faced off against the Confederate Army and prejudice from their fellow Union soldiers.
There’s no shortage of blacks in war films to choose from Miracle on St. Anna, Red Tails, A Soldier’s Story, but Glory exemplifies the irony of black men fighting for freedom while continually not being treated equal the best. And it doesn’t hurt that the film boasts a stellar cast including Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, Andre Braugher, Cary Elwes and Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Denzel Washington.
1940s: 42 (2013)
Before football became the national pastime, baseball was considered part of the fabric of Americana. But the stars of the 1930s and early 40s enjoyed a significant advantage of battling on a limited playing field. It wasn’t until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers that baseball became integrated and Robinson’s path was a challenging, unfair and frustrating journey.
Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up) stars as Robinson at the initial phase of his Major League Baseball career in 1947, withstanding the shoddy treatment, hatred and outright disrespect. As a result, 42 offers a fascinating look at a sports world that did not want African-American participation. That participation in modern day sports is often taken for granted, but Robinson helped usher in a pivotal moment in sports and American history.
1950s: Hidden Figures (2016)
Black History Month is typically used as a reminder of all the various contributions made by African-American inventors. Rarely does that spotlight extend beyond the regulars (George Washington Carver, Madame C.J. Walker, etc.) making Hidden Figures a revealing and insightful film for all ages.
Set in 1961, Hidden Figures looks at three black women (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) and their contributions in the Space Race despite facing racial and gender inequality issues.
One of the newer entries on the list, Hidden Figures is a strongly inspirational film that highlights the drive of African-Americans
1960s: Selma (2014)
Ava DuVernay looks at this pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leads a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 in an effort to secure equal voting rights.
No comprehensive look at the black experience could be complete without a look at the Civil Rights Movement and the indignities those pioneers endured. As many of today’s sacrifices are taken for granted, Selma is a powerful reminder that civic duties aren’t just an option, but an obligation and observance of those for those that came before them.
1970s: Let’s Do It Again (1975)
Let’s Do It Again is Uptown Saturday Night’s sequel, and by all measures it’s as strong if not stronger, as Clyde (Sidney Poitier) and Billy (Bill Cosby), in an effort to raise money for their Atlanta church, and their pastor, Ossie Davis, head to New Orleans and bet on a prize fight. The film was based on an actual event that happened after an Ali fight in Atlanta in the early 1970s. Cosby and Poitier are pure magic.
Their chemistry is undeniable, and Denise Nicholas, Lee Chamberlain, John Amos and Calvin Lockhart make the film a visual feast with the clothing, the style, the cunning and all of the action surrounding the fight, making money, and all while trying their best to stay alive. Let’s Do It Again had an amazing soundtrack, backed primarily by the Staples Singers song of the same title, that drives the film throughout and sparks nostalgia even with its first notes.
1980s: Hollywood Shuffle (1987)
The concept of independent film was such a new but viable avenue for African American filmmakers after ‘She’s Gotta Have It’. The story of how the film was financed is now the stuff of legend; with a loan from college friends and his grandmother, Spike got the film classic made. And a year later, on the opposite coast, a very similar situation was taking place with writer, actor, director and requisite funny man Robert Townsend with his magnum opus, ‘Hollywood Shuffle’. When he ran out of funding for the film, he turned to his charge cards; and bought food, gas and other items for his crew so that they’d keep working and finish the film classic.
And let’s look at the film; a series of vignettes whose themes were as telling and poignant though humorous in the late eighties but just as prevalent today; typecasting, stereotypes, being cast in specific roles, and the fact that actors of colors must in many cases take roles ‘beneath their dignity’ time after time before getting a shot at being a lead. Breakout performance for Townsend and Anne Marie Johnson, but also his cast of loyal and hilarious compatriots included comedy hall of famers; Keenan and Damon Wayans, John Witherspoon and even a nice cameo from Paul Mooney.
Townsend was fearless, and even the title of ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ connotes the dance that people of color must do to just for an opportunity to shine. If you don’t pay attention to any other scenes; the Eddie Murphy scene and the opening ‘Black Acting School’ are worth the full ninety minutes. The ‘shuffle’ that Townsend portrays is just as vivid today, 30 years later.
School Daze (1988)
Getting to college is an important milestone and for many African-Americans, there’s no better experience than a Historically Black College and University (HBCU).
Spike Lee tackles traditional elements of college life from stepping, fraternities and self-discovery with his typical establishment-challenging viewpoint.
Giancarlo Esposito enjoys lording it over campus as the head of his fraternity while socially conscious Laurence Fishburne plays a socially conscious student concerned with apartheid and other issues in South Africa. Lee also challenges the senseless light-skinned vs. dark skinned rivalry fully placing the onus on future generations to get over their apathy, divisiveness and to most importantly wake up. And stay woke.
1990s: House Party (1990)
Truly iconoclastic in that its simplicity in plot and narrative were just a part of its strength as a film, juxtaposed with the dazzling performances of newcomers Kid (Chris Reid), Play (Peter Martin), Robin Harris, as well as Tisha Campbell, Adrienne Joi Johnson and a very young Martin Lawrence, House Party was a certified classic when it was released.
House Party had it all; humor, hip-hop, feel good cool, and situations easy to relate to for a teenager in the early 90s. With great cameos by the likes of Full Force and John Witherspoon, a hilarious story and a hero in Reid’s ‘Kid’, House Party is an instant classic that cements the early 90s in the minds of movie lovers everywhere.
And though it’s an LA story, the crime, violence and other themes that one usually saw in films of that genre, simply weren’t there. House Party was nothing but a good time, and a great film.
The most famous scene in House Party, the winner of the Sundance Film Festival, was the dance scene at the party when Kid ‘N Play showed the world their dance which is now so famous, and heralded and yet as difficult and skillful as it was nearly 30 years ago.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
John Singleton’s revelatory look at South Central L.A. was eye-opening for moviegoers. While the media frequently portrayed that region as a haven for gangs, Boyz n the Hood provided a more comprehensive look at life for young black men with the odds stacked firmly against them.
Singleton showed the importance of a father as Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) moves in with his father (Laurence Fishburne) to learn how to become a man. His friends Ricky (Morris Chestnut) has big dreams of becoming a college football standout while his brother Doughboy (Ice Cube) is an aspiring gang banger.
Boyz n the Hood showed the harsh realities of life with fractured homes and deferred dreams, but also the enduring desire to create a meaningful life. Despite potential threats and dangers around every corner. Singleton offered a warning to would-be gangsters a portrait of the inevitable conclusion of their lifestyle.
Along with New Jack City’s Ice-T, Cube’s performance helped pave the way for rappers to become fixtures in 90s films opening the door for stars like LL Cool J and Queen Latifah beyond sitcoms.
The hood genre eventually became a staple for black films in the 90s to the point it was skewered by The Wayans Brother’s Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in The Hood. But Boyz n the Hood’s influence remains felt today.
2000s: The Best Man Holiday (2013)
The follow-up to the enjoyable 1999 film shows successful African-Americans who’ve achieved their dreams. They persevered and can enjoy the fruits of their hard-earned efforts. And there’s no one better to share that success with than friends as close as family.
The Best Man Holiday has tender and somber moments, but it’s also a celebration of the journey of African-Americans. The characters aren’t beaten by slave owners, harassed by bigots or struggling to have even footing and opportunities as their white peers. Instead, they’re able to appreciate life, through the laughs and the tears and everything in between.
There’s still more steps to go on the road, but it is possible. And with more and more African-American filmmakers making their mark in Hollywood, there’s no limit to the amount of stories we’ll continue to see on the big screen.
Those are our picks. Which ones would you include? Feel free to share in the comment section below.