The Black Family on Film

from Mammy to Madea


The earliest cinematic representations of the black family were overwhelmingly negative. Rarely portrayed as proper husbands or good fathers, black men were depicted instead as docile, happy slaves, content to serve their white masters and even to sacrifice their own lives on their behalf (as in Uncle Pete’s Ruse [1911] A Slave’s Devotion [1913], and His Trust and His Trust Fulfilled [1915]); as violent, sexually aggressive brutes (a type indelibly etched in the popular imagination by D. W. Griffith’s controversial The Birth of a Nation [1915]); or as thieving, gambling, chicken-eating, womanizing louts and con men (as in The Chicken Thief [1904], Black Magic [1917], and How Rastus Got His Porkchops [1908], one of the numerous popular shorts featuring crazy Rastus). Black women, usually restricted to minor roles, fared only slightly better. Depicted as fat, dowdy, and dark (often exaggeratedly so, since in most early films they were played by white actresses in blackface), the rag-headed Mammies proved more devoted to their white mistresses than to their own families. And black children usually served as objects of amusement, even ridicule: misbehaving little “pickaninnies,” they needed the strong discipline of more “civilized” whites to teach them social values, the way that Aunt Ophelia and Little Eva rehabilitated the wild Topsy in the many film versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Early independent black filmmakers attempted to offer more balanced portraits of black family life by introducing new character types and situations that challenged the racist representations. Through the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, noted black actor Noble M. Johnson—with the support of his brother George P. (Perry) Johnson—produced such fine films as The Realization of A Negro’s Ambition (1916), a Horatio Alger story about a black engineer and his sweetheart who overcome obstacles to achieve their ambitions of family, home, and friends. And Oscar Micheaux, the first black film auteur, took the familiar Hollywood storylines and gave them a distinctly racial twist. In the many films that he wrote and produced throughout his long career, he featured strong black male and female characters in diverse professions, offered realistic images of black struggles for middle-class respectability, and emphasized the importance of black family values.

The noteworthy advances, however, were arrested and the burgeoning black film industry halted by a number of unfortunate events, including underfinancing, high production costs, and the Depression. As silent films yielded to talkies in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the big Hollywood studios continued to rehash old formulas. Plantation sagas like Jezebel (1938), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Song of the South (1946) gave fresh life to the images of devoted Toms and Mammies, while the popular jungle and African-themed films like King Kong (1933) and the Tarzan series reinforced notions of black inferiority. Even contemporary family dramas drew on the familiar types: in Imitation of Life (1934), for example, the resourceful Delilah helps pull her white counterpart Bea out of economic hardship, but continues to accept a subservient role as a modern-day Mammy in the household they share with their daughters.

The Second World War heightened racial awareness and brought about sweeping social changes that reverberated in cinema. The “New Negro” began making his way to the screen in studio films such as In This Our Life (1942), while a handful of outstanding “problem films” like Pinky (1949) and Lost Boundaries (1949) explored the social barriers that modern black families faced. And the first black super-star Sidney Poitier introduced an integrationist hero who confronted racial fears and restrictive housing covenants in such groundbreaking family dramas as A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

As the Eisenhower era gave rise to the age of black power, still other black types appeared, from the young black protagonist coming of age in a hostile society (in films such as The Learning Tree [1969], Sounder [1972], and Go Tell It on the Mountain [1985]) to the self-confident action hero (in films such as Cotton Comes to Harlem [1970] and Shaft [1971]). But perhaps the most interesting development in the depiction of the black family came in the final decades of the twentieth century, as Hollywood attempted to reflect the inroads of blacks into politics, entertainment, and society. The films of a new wave of black directors, including Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Mario Van Peebles, challenged conventional depictions of black life by inverting the old stereotypes. Films and telefilms such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) recast the derogatory Mammy-type into the strong, enduring black matriarch. And movies based on the works of black women writers like Alice Walker (The Color Purple [1985]), Gloria Naylor (The Women of Brewster Place) [1989], and Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale [1995]) revealed new and expanded definitions of family and community as the female protagonists discovered strength and solidarity in their sisterhood.

Some recent films have expanded those definitions even further by highlighting the loving single father (The Pursuit of Happyness [2006]), the archetypally wise matriarch (A Lesson Before Dying [1999], Soul Food [1997]), and the extended family (Lackawanna Blues [2005]). Still other popular films, like the acclaimed adaptation Precious (2009), deftly explored cinematic clichés of the black family or, like Tyler Perry’s wildly successful Madea franchise, exploited the old stereotypes by parodying them.

Even today, far too many films still draw on outdated racial formulas. Yet black representation has advanced considerably over a century of filmmaking. In particular, the evolution of Mammy to Madea signals a welcome direction in the depiction owelcome direction in the depiction of the black family in film.

Dr.Barbara Tepa Lupack

BIRTH OF A NATION

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN

World Film Corporation, 1914

The character of Tom had first appeared in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel of protest. Yet in the ubiquitous “Tom shows” and Tom spectacles (mounted by P. T. Barnum, among others) that became so popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tom was transformed from an exemplary figure who is faithful to God and his own principles into a contented, wooly-white-haired house servant. Secondary characters like Topsy, Little Eva’s naughty but devoted companion, and Mammy, Tom’s loyal wife, were similarly exaggerated for comic effect. Early films—from Edwin S. Porter’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Slavery Days (1903) through the numerous versions by the Lubin Company (1903), Thanhouser and Vitagraph (1910), Universal (1913), and Famous Players-Lasky (1918)—only perpetuated the unfortunate racial imagery. World Film Corporation’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, was the rare period film that strove for greater authenticity. Notably, the director William Robert Daly attempted to convey some of the special horror of slavery and its impact on the black family—specifically, the involuntary separation of husbands from wives, and mothers from children—through his depiction of the sale of Uncle Tom, Eliza’s son Little Harry, and other slaves from the Shelby plantation after their master’s death. Daly also challenged the prevailing social and cinematic view of harmony on the plantation by offering an unprecedented picture of violence perpetrated by blacks against whites. After cruel slave trader Simon Legree indicates his sexual interest in the newly-purchased slave Emmeline, his reluctant mistress Cassy steals his gun in order to prevent him from raping the girl. Later, when Tom is almost beaten to death in punishment for Cassy and Emmeline’s escape, the young male slave he befriended finds the gun that Cassy has abandoned and uses it to stalk and kill Legree. The surprise demonstration of wronged slaves who not only foil their masters but also redress the violence committed upon them certainly contributed to the sense of white terror and sexual violence that D. W. Griffith exploited the following year in his racist classic The Birth of a Nation. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Daly’s film was the casting of seventy-two-year-old stage actor Sam Lucas in the title role, which made Lucas both the first black man to play a leading role in a movie and the first black actor to be cast in a prominent role (though other black characters in the film, like Topsy and Eva, continued to be played by whites in blackface makeup).

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BIRTH OF A NATION

HALLELUJAH!

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1929

With the success of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927), Hollywood’s first “talking film,” studios recognized the viability of exploiting black life on the sound movie screen and in the movie houses. Hallelujah!, a pioneering black musical, was a modern-day morality play about Zeke Johnson (Daniel L. Haynes), a decent young black man who is seduced by various pleasures of the flesh. As the film opens, Zeke is living simply but happily on a farm with his family of honest, hardworking, God-fearing folk: Mammy and Pappy Johnson, their adopted daughter Missy Rose, and his four younger brothers. But after bringing the family’s cotton harvest to the city for sale, he becomes distracted by the flashy, lusty Chick (Nina Mae McKinney), who conspires with her gambler boyfriend Hot Shot to cheat him out of his money. When Zeke tries to reclaim his losses, he ends up in a barroom fight during which his brother Spunk is killed. To atone for his actions, Zeke becomes a traveling preacher; but he soon deserts his congregation to follow Chick, who starts two-timing him with her former lover. After tracking down the pair—in a chase that leaves both Chick and Hot Shot dead—Zeke is sentenced to hard labor on a prison chain gang for his crime. Ultimately, he serves his time and returns home to the embrace of his loving parents and the ever-faithful Missy Rose, thus completing his redemption.

A landmark in sound films, Hallelujah! was directed by King Vidor, who was so intent on filming a story about the “real Negro” that he took the unusual step of employing black consultants to advise him. And indeed he managed to incorporate both traditional aspects of black folk culture, such as gospel music, and more innovative styles, such as the dance forms popularized on the vaudeville stage. Some critics of the film decried what they believed was a reversion to old stereotypes such as the faithful Mammy, the zoot-suited gambler, and the loose-moraled temptress; others found the depiction of an almost hysterical black religious fervor to be condescending. But most viewers, black and white, appreciated the film’s portrait of an earnest, close-knit family and hailed the way that the religious celebrations reinforced the more secular and social aspects of black culture. Despite the rich picture of family life that it brought to the screen, however, Hallelujah! was not a success at the box office. Rather than stimulating other innovative family dramas, it ushered in a slew of regressive but more profitable films that resurrected old derogatory types and situations, such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s servility and Stepin Fetchit’s racist clowning.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

THE EXILE

Micheaux Pictures Corporation, 1931

A milestone in American film history, The Exile (1931) was the first all-black-cast independently produced “talkie” (or sound film). Also remarkable was the film’s depiction of hero Jean Baptiste, an ambitious “decent colored man.” Critical of his fiancée Edith’s plan to turn a mansion she has inherited into a house of ill repute, Baptiste leaves her and travels from Chicago to South Dakota. There, he establishes his own homestead and falls in love with Agnes, a hard-working, enlightened woman; and after overcoming numerous obstacles, the pair decides to marry and start a new life on the plains, away from the depravity and temptations of the big city. Unlike the fashionable but disresputable Edith, the virtuous Agnes is as simple as the prairie from which she hails. And the aspiring Baptiste, who succeeds because of his hard work and talents, represents the new (if somewhat idealized) generation of blacks whose ambitions and achievements Oscar Micheaux typically celebrated in his films.

In a career that spanned almost thirty years, Micheaux became the most successful early black independent film producer and the first black film auteur. His films were not technically brilliant. Forced to work on tight budgets, he employed family members as actors and shot scenes in the homes of his friends or in empty, outdated studios. Retakes were a luxury he could not afford, and editing was minimal. In some of his films, in fact, he can be overheard whispering dialogue to his actors. Yet in most cases, the Micheaux feature was far superior to those of other black independent film companies and even to many of the “race films” by white independent producers, largely because Micheaux took the familiar Hollywood script and gave it a distinctly racial slant. Committed to “racial uplift,” he adapted The Exile and many other films from his own novels and cast black characters in non-stereotypical roles as farmers, oil men, explorers, professors, teachers, Broadway producers, even Secret Service agents—a depiction that challenged the familiar portrayals of villainous black males, powerless Toms, and docile Mammies. Although The Exile generated much controversy, especially because of its suggestion of interraciality (since Baptiste initially believes Agnes to be white), it gave hope to other race filmmakers that black films could compete in the new market of sound movies.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

IMITATION OF LIFE

Universal Pictures, 1934

The first important black-oriented major studio film of the 1930s, Imitation of Life was hailed as a “daring moving picture” that reflected changing social attitudes and offered a sensitive portrayal of black family problems. Based on the best-selling novel by Fanny Hurst, the film told the story of two poor widows, the black Delilah (Louise Beavers) and the white Bea (Claudette Colbert), who are hard hit by the Depression. After meeting by accident, they decide to live and raise their daughters together. Delilah’s secret pancake recipe soon turns the women into wealthy restauranteurs and allows them to move to an elegant townhouse in Manhattan. Yet it fails to ensure their happiness: Bea’s daughter falls in love with her mother’s beau, while Delilah’s daughter Peola, who leaves home, defies racial standards and pretends to be white. Only after the stoic Delilah dies, her heart broken by her daughter’s betrayal, does Peola appreciate her mother’s strength and return home to make amends. The casting of black actress Fredi Washington as a mulatto character was a significant departure from the usual period studio films (in which mulatto roles were played by whites), while Peola’s desire for the freedom and equal justice denied her mother’s generation struck a responsive note with many black viewers. Although Peola initially looks down on her mother for accepting an unequal partnership share of the business and for continuing to act so deferentially to Bea, she learns that Delilah is the true wise and loving matriarch of both families. It is Delilah who teaches everyone the importance of loyalty and family values; and after her death, her selflessness is honored by the biggest funeral ever seen in Harlem. An immediate hit with white audiences, the film was also popular with black moviegoers, who appreciated its innovative, at times subversive approach to real concerns. As one reviewer noted: though much of Imitation of Life “is dreadfully superficial and needlessly sentimental,” especially in its contrast between the traditional Delilah and the independent Peola, “it will really set America to thinking furiously.” (The film was re-made less effectively in 1959, with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore as the two widows.)

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BIRTH OF A NATION

GOD’S STEP CHILDREN

Micheaux Pictures Corporation, 1938

God’s Step Children, one of independent black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s later films, was a cautionary tale that underscored the joys of family life and examined—from a black perspective—the dangers of passing. Naomi Saunders, a light-skinned girl who has been abandoned by her real mother and raised by her foster-mother Mrs. Saunders (played by Alice B. Russell, Micheaux’s wife), rejects her black heritage. At the Negro school she is forced to attend, she raises havoc by telling lies about her teacher and creates a scandal that shakes the community. After twelve years in a convent school, she returns home, where she immediately resumes her old ways and tries to seduce her foster-brother Jimmie, a hardworking former Pullman porter turned farmer who rejects her. Naomi then marries Jimmie’s friend, a dark-skinned black man, but grows to resent him. Leaving her baby with Mrs. Saunders to raise, she runs away to another city, where she marries a white man, who abandons her after discovering her racial secret. When Naomi finally comes home again, she sees her foster-brother happily married and raising a large family of his own. Realizing that she has lost all chance for black middle-class respectability, she commits suicide by jumping into a river.
Like most of the films that Micheaux made over his long career, God’s Step Children offered a compelling vision of contemporary black life, particularly of intrafamilial and race relations and of race ambition. The contrast between the self-loathing Naomi and the industrious, striving Jimmie are clear: her attempts at racial repudiation isolate her from both black and white society, while his adherence to his mother’s virtues and pursuit of his own middle-class aspirations result in a full and happy family life. Yet the film generated considerable controversy. Picketers railed against what they claimed was the racist distinction between dark-skinned (“bad”) and light-skinned (“good”) blacks; and censors insisted on the deletion of certain scenes, including one in which an actor playing a white man knocks down and spits on Naomi. Although Micheaux complied with the censor, he welcomed the publicity and continued to insist that he was trying to expose rather than condone race prejudice.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

BROKEN STRINGS

L. C. Borden Productions, 1940

The last of several screenplays co-written by the excellent but underappreciated black actor Clarence Muse, Broken Strings was released by independent film company L. C. Borden. The ostensible purpose of the film was to heighten awareness and appreciation of black music. But its real subject was the moving relationship between a father and his son. Injured classical violinist Arthur Williams (played by Muse) battles with his son Johnny (William Washington), a gifted young musician who wants to perform swing music. At a radio contest that he has entered in order to earn money for his father’s operation, Johnny discovers that Dicky Morley, a jealous competitor (and one of his father’s pupils), has tampered with his instrument. Unable to play the classical piece he had originally selected on the damaged violin, he has to perform swing instead. Arthur, moved by his son’s talent, applauds so vigorously that he restores movement to his paralyzed fingers and is soon able to return to his own concert career. The independent film, in which Muse gave possibly the finest and most sensitive performance of his long career, was also a small triumph for Muse as a screenwriter. One reviewer called Broken Strings “an extraordinary picture that contains no gun shooting” or other stereotypical depictions of black misconduct but instead depicts black characters “conducting successful business,” including, among others, “neat and trim Negro nurses at the hospital” and a skilled black surgeon with whom Williams’ daughter Grace consults about his condition. By telling “the simple story of an ordinary family,” Broken Strings reminded viewers that familial bonds transcend all boundaries of color.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

GO DOWN, DEATH

Sack Amusement Enterprises, 1944

Directed by Spencer Williams, Jr. and produced by his “Harlemwood Studios” as part of an unprecedented ten-year deal with Sack Amusement Enterprises, Go Down, Death was based on a short poem by acclaimed black writer and social activist James Weldon Johnson. The “folk drama” centered on Sister Caroline, a good woman of high morals, who dies after trying to frustrate a plot by her foster-son Jim (played by Williams). As the self-serving owner of a local nightclub, Jim tries to discredit the new preacher whose sermons are cutting into his business. But his selfishness and greed serve only to destroy the one person who ever believed in him. At Caroline’s funeral, the Reverend offers a moving sermon taken almost verbatim from Johnson’s poem. Overcome by the voice of his conscience and the graphic images of hellfire it evokes, Jim is soon found dead—a fitting punishment, the film suggests, for his ignorance of the values that his foster-mother Caroline represented. The film thus serves as an exemplum, a contemporary parable of black culture that underscores the significance of faith and family loyalty.

Williams, who is best known for his role as Amos Brown on the old Amos ’n’ Andy television series that ran from 1951-53, was a veteran of the movie industry: he began as a call boy to Oscar Hammerstein, learned comedy from legendary black performer Bert Williams, wrote for the Christie Comedies produced by Paramount, and became a popular actor at Paramount and other major studios. One of his earlier films, Son of Ingagi (1940), about a greedy brother in search of his sister’s gold, is considered the first horror film with an all-black cast. Williams also acted in a number of pioneering all-black Westerns, including Bronze Buckaroo (1938), Harlem on the Range (1938), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). But perhaps Williams’ most important work was as an activist who lobbied for vital changes in the industry, such as the appointment of “a national Negro censor,” and who strove to bring more honesty to black film roles and depictions of black characters.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

SONG OF THE SOUTH

Walt Disney Pictures, 1946

By the early 1940s, once-popular plantation movies like Gone With the Wind had fallen out of vogue. Yet in 1946, Walt Disney released Song of the South, a surprisingly regressive film based on the Uncle Remus tales by Joel Chandler Harris and set on a nineteenth-century plantation full of contented slaves and a devoted Mammy named Aunt Tempy, played by Hattie McDaniel (the first black actress ever to receive an Academy Award, for her performance as Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammy [1939]). The patriarchal old Remus (James Baskett) tells uplifting stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear to Johnny, the lonely and troubled white boy who has been sent to live with his grandparents after his parents’ separation; and he provides the boy with the strong father figure that he so desperately needs. (As is typical of such plantation tales, Remus’ own family is almost completely subordinated to the white family whom he serves.) But when he is scolded by Johnny’s mother for interfering, Remus decides to leave the plantation. After the boy follows him and is injured by a charging bull, Remus returns to offer solace at his bedside. Naturally, all ends well: the parents reconcile, and soon Johnny is dancing up hills again with his friends, as old Remus trails happily behind them. The film, which intercut live acting with some of the most stunning cartoon animation and color techniques ever seen by movie audiences, was praised for its technical excellence; and Baskett was awarded a special honorary Academy Award for his touching performance. Yet, while Southern popular and critical response to the film was overwhelmingly favorable, protesters from New York to Hollywood picketed the film—more heavily, in fact, than any film since The Birth of a Nation. (At the Atlanta premiere, protesters shouted, “We fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom!”) The NAACP condemned the film’s distortions, such as the idyllic relationship between master and slave, and black politicians called for its suppression. Song of the South was seen as a metaphor for the plundering of black culture: the indispensable Remus is criticized, not rewarded, for stabilizing the family structure; his distinctive black voice is silenced; and his tradition is usurped and exploited as Johnny learns to conjure the cartoon animals on his own. While the film was commercially successful, it forced Hollywood to reconsider the way black characters were depicted, especially in light of the increased emphasis on racial tolerance in the postwar period. Song of the South was quietly retired by Disney in 1986.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

PINKY

Twentieth Century-Fox, 1949

The years following the Second World War continued the impetus for integration and ushered in other social changes, including the development of a black middle class and a dramatic increase in the number of black workers, especially professionals. Hollywood, too, reacted to the public’s growing cultural and racial awareness by launching an era of “problem” or “message” movies that highlighted black family and social issues. One of the most innovative and liberal of these was Pinky, directed by Elia Kazan and based on the novel Quality by white novelist Cid Ricketts Sumner. In the film, Pinky, a fair-skinned nurse who has been passing for white in the North, returns for a visit to the Deep South, where her hardworking Christian grandmother Dicey Johnson (played by the incomparable Ethel Waters) teaches her vital lessons about self-respect. Dicey, whose meager wages as a laundress paid for her granddaughter’s education, encourages Pinky to stop “pretending you is what you ain’t.” Drawing on her grandmother’s example, Pinky wins the right to retain the home bequeathed to her by Dicey’s white employer, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore), decides to stay in the South, and turns the property into a black nursing clinic and nursery school. She also finds the courage to break up with her white fiancé, who is willing to marry her only if she maintains the “secret” of her race, and to assert proudly her black identity. Despite its compromises—including the happy Hollywood ending, which was a significant departure from the book, and the casting of white actress Jeanne Crain to play the title role—Pinky was noteworthy for its ambitious attempt to depict the nature and extent of racial inequality and the depth of the loving bonds that sustain the black family, through even the most troubling of times. For her brilliant performance as the illiterate but dignified old laundress Aunt Dicey, Ethel Waters was nominated for an Academy Award (only the second black performer in cinema history to receive an Oscar nomination).

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BIRTH OF A NATION

LOST BOUNDARIES

RD-DR Productions, 1949

Another of Hollywood’s important “problem” films, Lost Boundaries was released in the same year as Pinky. A portrait of a family in crisis, it was based on journalist William L. White’s nonfiction book about a light-skinned black doctor and his wife who move to a small town in New Hampshire, where for two decades they pass for white in order to avoid the discrimination experienced even by black professionals. In the film, the identity of Dr. Carter (played by Mel Ferrer) is exposed after he volunteers for Navy service just before Pearl Harbor. Their “dark secret” tears the family apart and creates conflict in the close-knit community, which initially turns against the Carter family. The sins of the parents fall upon the Carters’ two children, particularly the troubled son Howie, who embarks on a frightening odyssey of self-discovery through Harlem. But in true Hollywood fashion, harmony is restored after the white minister gives a sermon on tolerance. Despite its oversimplifications, Lost Boundaries clearly highlighted contemporary racial prejudices, including the prohibition against blacks serving as commissioned officers in the Navy as well as other forms of racial discrimination in the Armed Services and the medical profession. And it revealed the ways in which even seemingly decent people harbor race hatred that potentially destroys the lives of their black neighbors. (In one scene, a group of townswomen express their outrage at the Carters for inviting Howie’s black classmate to a church social; one woman refuses to share food with the “darky.”) An immediate critical hit, Lost Boundaries was hailed even by the black press, which had initially criticized producer Louis De Rochemont for casting white actors in the black roles. The Afro-American, an important black paper, described the film as “one of the best treatments of a racial story that ever came out of Hollywood.”

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BIRTH OF A NATION

NATIVE SON

Argentina Sono Films, 1950

Although Hollywood was making progress on the racial front, black moviegoers continued to seek out and demand increasingly realistic screen images, particularly images that did not depict blacks as the “problem” but rather portrayed some of the real problems that blacks—and especially black families—faced. That kind of social realism was already evident in literature, most notably in Richard Wright’s groundbreaking novel, Native Son (1940)—described as “a good novel about a bad Negro”—which eloquently captured the racial restrictions and oppression that were the plight of the urban masses. Within a year of its publication, the novel was adapted to the Broadway stage, where it was directed by Orson Welles. But numerous early attempts to bring Native Son to the screen failed. Finally, Wright bought back the movie rights and pursued the project on his own. The finished film was amateurish, at best. Shot from an incomplete script in Buenos Aires, it starred Wright in the central role of young Bigger Thomas (even though he was twice Bigger’s age). Yet, while the film suffered from the same problems that many early independent black productions did, its very rawness was actually its greatest strength. Bigger’s fear and frustration are palpable. Unable to escape the crime and poverty of “the black belt” slums of Chicago’s South Side, he lives with his mother, younger brother and sister in a rat-infested, one-room kitchenette. In the absence of his father, who was lynched in the South twelve years earlier, Bigger tries to provide a strong presence in the household and a good example for his two siblings. “No matter what happens,” he determines, “we got to keep our family together.” But after securing a job as a chauffeur, he accidentally causes the death of his rich white employer’s daughter and watches helplessly as his life spirals downward into even greater violence and hardship. Tried and convicted of murder, he trades the “prison without bars” of his family’s home for a prison with actual bars—a conclusion that, Wright suggests, was for the most part preordained. In its portrait of a sensitive young man dreaming of a better life and rebelling against the insurmountable bigotry he and his family experience, the film opened the door for a number of more successful coming-of-age films produced in the 1960s and 1970s. Native Son was re-made in 1986, with Victor Love in the title role and Oprah Winfrey as Bigger’s mother.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

TAKE A GIANT STEP

United Artists, 1960

Althoughless sophisticated than the Broadway hit A Raisin in the Sun, Take a Giant Step, another black-authored, family-oriented drama, had a similar theme of struggle and accommodation. Written by black playwright Louis Peterson and adapted to the screen by Peterson and his colleague, Academy Award-winning writer Julius J. Epstein, Take a Giant Step was produced by Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, the independent film company formed in 1947 by Burt Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht. Popular rock-and-roll singer Johnny Nash starred as Spencer Scott, a black middle-class teen coming of age in a northern white community (a role that Lou Gossett, Jr. had played on Broadway). In scenes that were quite volatile for the time, the film depicted Spencer’s attempt to discover and assert his identity. In one such scene, after a white teacher presumes that slaves were simply too lazy to fight for emancipation, Spencer challenges the falsehood and is expelled; then he clashes with his father, who upholds the teacher’s authority instead of empathizing with his son’s frustration. Spencer, however, finds support from his strong-willed grandmother, the family matriarch who dispenses blunt but loving advice, and the family’s young black housekeeper, who empathizes with his loneliness. Eventually he comes to appreciate the sacrifices that his parents made in order to give him opportunities that they themselves never enjoyed; and he is able to express his love for them aloud. He also recognizes that, as a “black boy” in white society, he must make certain accommodations. (His experience of frustration and humiliation, screenwriter Peterson implies, parallels the struggles of the larger black community in a pre-civil rights era.) The film’s frank treatment of the black teenager’s defiance, like the exploration of his awakening sexual desire, raised sensitive racial issues, while Spencer’s use of profanity threatened to jeopardize the film’s MPAA Production Code seal. Unfortunately, interest in the film was poor. Theater owners complained that audiences did not want to see unknown black stars as serious actors; others suggested that racial problem films were just not a draw—though, ironically, around the same time, the major studios were successfully promoting movies about rebellious white youth, including James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, in films such as The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel Without a Cause. The striking and timely portrait of a troubled, defiant, but intelligent and well-intentioned black adolescent, however, was truly a “giant step” in black film imagery.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

A RAISIN IN THE SUN

Columbia Pictures, 1961

A Raisin in the Sun—whose title was taken from a line in Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” which warns that a dream deferred might “dry up like a raisin in the sun”—was based on Lorraine Hansberry’s first and best-known play about a struggling black family in Chicago. The film adaptation skillfully revealed the aspirations as well as the frustrations of each of the family members, particularly of Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier), a chauffeur to a wealthy white man who sees only a bleak future of servitude ahead. After a friend suggests that they open a liquor store together, Walter Lee imagines himself becoming a successful businessman who can afford a better life for his family. When his mother Lena (Claudia McNeil) gives him the funds from his late father’s insurance policy to open a checking account for himself and a savings account to pay for his sister Beneatha’s medical school education, Walter invests the money in the liquor store instead. Unfortunately, his shady partner absconds with the cash, robbing Walter of his legacy (and Beneatha’s) and leaving him even more bereft of hope. The only way to recoup the loss is to capitulate to the white man who offers to buy back the house that Lena recently purchased, as a way of keeping blacks out of his neighborhood. At the last moment, Walter Lee salvages his dignity—and regains his mother’s trust and his family’s admiration—by refusing the offer. Knowing that opposition and even violence await them, the Youngers prepare to move into their new home and start realizing their dreams. (Interestingly, in 1938, Hansberry’s father, Carl A. Hansberry, had challenged Chicago’s real estate covenants by moving his family into a white neighborhood. With the help of the NAACP, he successfully fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which struck down the restrictive covenants in the famous Hansberry vs. Lee decision of 1940. But even though illegal, Chicago’s discriminatory practices continued.) Independently produced by David Susskind and Hansberry’s friend Philip Rose and directed by Daniel Petri, A Raisin in the Sun was a so-called “prestige picture” that introduced many white moviegoers to black family drama. The excellence of the film’s ensemble cast, which also included Ruby Dee and Diana Sands, and its unerring exactness in depicting the dreams and disappointments of the ghettoized black working class made A Raisin in the Sun not just a sensitive, compelling study but also a landmark film. It was re-made in 1986 by Hansberry’s widower, Robert Nemiroff, to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original film. Directed by black filmmaker Bill Duke, the remake starred Danny Glover, Esther Rolle, Starletta DuPois, and Kim Yancey. A more recent adaptation, performed on stage and filmed for television in 2008, featured Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, and Sanaa Lathan.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER

Columbia Pictures, 1967

The racial “problem” pictures of the 1940s paved the way for a new black character type, best exemplified by the dignified screen persona of Sidney Poitier, who would dominate the next two decades of Hollywood mainstream cinema. In contrast to the degrading and menial roles as Mammies, Toms, and Sambos played by an earlier generation of fine but under-utilized and underappreciated actors like Rex Ingram, Hattie McDaniel, and Louise Beaver, Poitier became the model integrationist hero in an integrated age. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—arguably the last explicitly integrationist film released by a major studio—he starred as Dr. John Wade Prentice, a brilliant, handsome, impeccably-dressed Nobel Prize-contender who is engaged to Joey Drayton, a white woman whom he has known for only ten days and whose liberal parents he is meeting for the first time. In the course of a single evening, Prentice tries to deliver the Draytons (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, in his final film role) from their racial prejudices. Then, for good measure, he works a similar transformation on his own parents (Roy Glenn, Sr., and Beah Richards, in an Academy Award-nominated performance), who have been invited to the Draytons’ San Francisco home for a dinner of introduction. The two families immediately agree that the relationship between Joey and John is a “serious problem” that creates a “sort of situation.” But while the mothers are sympathetic to the union, the fathers see only its illogic and impracticality. John tries to change his father’s mind: in an emotional, if questionable, declaration that underscores the difference between generations in the black family, he says, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” It is Mrs. Prentice, though, who makes the biggest impression by appealing to Mr. Drayton’s affection for his wife and daughter and by reminding him that love, not skin color, defines a family. A contemporary drawing-room comedy, the film raised, but ultimately glossed over, serious racial issues: in fact, at the end, Mr. Drayton’s primary concern is no longer the impending interracial marriage of his daughter to an older man she hardly knows but the delay in being served his dinner (notably, by their outspoken black housekeeper Tilly). Like Dr. Prentice, most of the characters that Poitier played were decent, intelligent, almost saintly figures whom white audiences found attractive and unthreatening. Yet blacks, who saw in Poitier a more subversive quality, appreciated his struggle for equality in a society that continued to resist his intrusions. Directed by the unabashedly liberal Stanley Kramer, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner prompted viewers to examine their own attitudes about race relations.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

THE LEARNING TREE

Warner Brothers-Seven Arts, 1969

The Learning Tree, a touching coming-of-age film based on Gordon Parks’ semi-autobiographical novel about growing up black in a small Kansas town during the 1920s, was one of several black-oriented films released in 1969. But unlike those other films—including Up Tight, Slaves, and Putney Swope, all of which tended to indict the system and focus on black militancy—The Learning Tree succeeded precisely because it was old-fashioned and sentimental, in the best sense of those words. As the Variety reviewer noted, in the film “characterizations are broad, tradition and the influence of elders are emphasized, and moral decisions are key plot points.” With the love and support of his family, including his devoted mother and his blind Uncle Rob, the fifteen-year-old protagonist Newt Winger learns to cultivate values like honesty and loyalty; from other people in the community, he learns more negative values such as discrimination, violence, and racism. All of these youthful experiences serve as his “learning tree” and allow him, at the end of the film, to come forward as a critical witness in a murder trial, even though his testimony stirs up racial tensions in the town and causes the death of his ailing mother, who suffers a heart attack. With its universal theme, The Learning Tree was a film about race that paradoxically transcended race, which may account in part for its success at the box office. A renowned still photographer whose work appeared in Life and other prominent publications, the late Gordon Parks, Sr. not only produced and directed the film; he also wrote and scored the music. The Learning Tree was thus the first film financed by a major studio to have a black director, and it opened Hollywood’s doors not only for Parks, who went on to direct even more commercially successful films like Shaft (1971), but also for other black directors.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

SOUNDER

Twentieth Century-Fox, 1972

Sounder, based on a Newbery Prize-winning novel by white author William H. Armstrong and directed by Martin Ritt, was a touching black coming-of-age story. But whereas the novel focused on the struggle of a young boy to understand the cruelty of the world around him, the film—with a sensitive screenplay by black playwright Lonne Elder III—was a paean to the resilience and fortitude of the black family, who find spiritual sustenance in each other. After hardworking Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield) is forced to steal meat in order to feed his hungry children, he is arrested and taken away to a prison work camp, where he is isolated from his family but never loses his dignity. In his absence, his wife Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) musters her reserves in order to keep their small farm running. A symbol of the matriarchal strength that is so integral to the black family, she plows the land, plants the crops, harvests the sugar cane, and stands up to the white property owner. It is the eldest son, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), however, who is most affected by his father’s arrest; and it is he who must care for the loyal dog Sounder—whose abuse and wounding by the white sheriff parallels Nathan Lee’s—until his father returns. Among the original scenes that Elder added to the screenplay was a happy ending in which Nathan Lee reunites with his family but realizes that he must send his son away from home to get an education and ensure a better life. Although Sounder offered nothing new in terms of film technique, its simple story evoked the indomitable black spirit of survival. Both Winfield and Tyson were nominated for Academy Awards for their outstanding performances, and Lonne Elder III became the first black screenwriter ever nominated for an Oscar.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN

Tomorrow Entertainment, Inc., 1974

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, based on the novel by popular black writer Ernest J. Gaines, was an Emmy Award-winning made-for-television movie that popularized more than a century of black American history. Miss Jane, a black centenarian, recounts her harrowing tale of tragedy and triumph, from slavery and Reconstruction to the emergence of the civil rights movement. She recalls how, after losing her husband and her son, the two most important people in her life, she found consolation in her religion and in her community, where she became a symbolic “mother” to her people and a witness to the changes in the world around her. Yet the genius of the film was not in the events that Miss Jane relates but in her unique voice, which turns her personal family history into a remarkable combination of slave narrative, folk history, sermon, and oral poetry. In a final climactic and dramatic scene (which was original to the film and which Gaines deplored), Miss Jane becomes a heroine herself and a symbol to a new generation, as she engages in a public act of civil disobedience by drinking from a “Whites Only” water fountain in front of the courthouse. Although the telefilm has become a staple in libraries and classrooms nationwide, it elicited some criticism for introducing the character of a white male reporter who appropriates Miss Jane’s words and turns her story into his story by limiting her role in her own narrative. (In contrast, the novel’s Miss Jane shares her experiences with a black female history teacher.) Nonetheless, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman—which earned Emmy Awards for Cicely Tyson, director John Korty, screenwriter Ann Peacock, and music composer Fred Karlin—set new high standards for television and helped to establish a tradition of adaptation to telefilm that continued with the landmark miniseries Roots (1977) and other fine black-oriented productions like The Piano Lesson and The Wedding, which explored the connections and the complexities within the black family.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

THE RIVER NIGER

CineArtists Picture Corporation, 1976

Blaxploitation films were not the only films to portray the growing sense of black militancy. The River Niger, adapted by Joseph A. Walker from his award-winning play performed on and off Broadway four years earlier by the Negro Theater Ensemble, drew on the same reactionary, revolutionary fervor that motivated Sweetback, Shaft, Superfly, and other black superheroes of the era. Directed by Krishna Shah, the film depicts a black family at a critical time in their lives: Jeff Williams (Glynn Turman) returns from the Air Force to his home in Los Angeles, where his father Johnny Williams (James Earl Jones), a frustrated philosopher-poet, and his mother Mattie (Cicely Tyson) have planned a celebration in honor of his completion of navigators’ school. In fact, Jeff washed out, because he refused to act the way the white officers expected him to. But he is not the only family member with a secret: Johnny drinks too much, and Mattie has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As the Williams family unwittingly becomes involved in a crime perpetrated by a gang of Jeff’s old neighborhood pals, Jeff and Johnny become increasingly radicalized. Ultimately, after Johnny is shot protecting the gang members, he turns his sacrifice into a protest of a lifetime of social injustice. Both as family and protest drama, the adaptation was a rather weak version of the play; and it wasted the talents of its excellent cast. Yet although The River Niger received universally poor critical reviews, it managed to hint at an important and recurring theme in contemporary films—that violence against white institutions may be the only way to counter the violence of white racism. And it revealed the way that the black family, with its hopes and concerns, was a kind of microcosm of society at large.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

A HERO AIN’T NOTHING BUT A SANDWICH

New World Pictures, 1977

Like the revolutionary novel for young adults by Alice Childress that was its source, the film adaptation of A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich told the compelling story of a young man’s addiction to heroin and chronicled the ways that his drug habit almost destroys his family. Thirteen-year-old Benjie Johnson (Larry B. Scott), who lives with his single mother Rose (Cicely Tyson) and his widowed grandmother, starts shooting up on a dare from another boy. Soon Benjie is “skin-popping” regularly, stealing money from his family, and isolating himself from old friends. After two of his teachers report him, he is forced to enter a hospital detoxification program. But when he is released, he falls back into his old ways. After coming close to death, he is rescued by his mother’s hardworking boyfriend, Butler (Paul Winfield), a father figure who reaches out to him, literally and figuratively. Although the realism was less gritty at times than in the novel (in which Benjie lives in a cramped apartment in Harlem, not a little house in Los Angeles, and relates his experiences in the first person), the film vividly conveyed the boy’s sense of loneliness and abandonment, his search for his missing father, and his difficult rehabilitation. (The detoxification was graphically depicted in a series of black-and-white still photos and in lengthy encounter-group sessions with actual former addicts.) Like Native Son, A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich offered a frightening portrait of black adolescent turmoil, of a boy’s maturation in a modern society that is hostile to him, and of the failure of even a loving family to shield or save him from harm.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

THE COLOR PURPLE

Warner Brothers, 1985

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple was met with protests, even as the film was still in production; pickets and demonstrations in many major cities greeted the film’s release in December, 1985. The adaptation itself was roundly criticized for its oversimplifications, particularly the racial clichés and Hollywood stereotypes that it perpetuated, and denounced for its unrealistic black representations. Spike Lee spoke for a number of film historians and critics when he condemned the movie’s hostility toward its male characters, who were depicted as “one-dimensional animals.” Still others were disappointed by the way Spielberg de-emphasized the female characters, whose tragedies Walker had turned into hard-fought triumphs. And yet there was something undeniably affecting about the story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), a frightened young girl who is abused and impregnated by her father and then brutalized further by her uncaring husband. But through the experience of her own victimization and the strong example of the women in her life—sister Nettie (Akosua Busia), an African missionary from whom she is separated for decades but with whom she feels an enduring bond; Sophia (Oprah Winfrey, in her film debut), her proud and defiant sister-in-law, who asserts herself even to her racist white employer; and Shug Avery (Academy Award-winning Margaret Avery), the flamboyant juke-joint singer who is the object of both Celie’s and her husband’s affections—she finds her own voice. Celie’s long odyssey of self-discovery culminates not only in the successful business that she creates for herself but also in her happy reunion, significantly on Independence Day, with her sister and with the now-grown son whom her father gave away at birth. The film ends with a shot of the joyful sisters clapping hands once again in a field of purple flowers, an image that brings the story full circle. Despite its artistic shortcomings, The Color Purple was a commercial success. Within nine months of its release, it made over $100 million dollars; and, as one of the all-time best-selling videos, it grossed many millions more. Yet to many, The Color Purple remains an uneven film that melodramatically reduced or obscured Walker’s distinctly feminist message.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE

Harpo Productions, 1989

Based on Gloria Naylor’s “novel in seven stories,” the telefilm of The Women of Brewster Place explored the lives of seven women who reside in a decaying tenement on a dead-end street in an unnamed Northern city. A brick wall at the end of the street, erected as a result of political and economic machinations, separates them from the rest of the world. As the women come to know and trust each other, though, they rediscover the essential solidarity—the sisterhood—that is lacking in their lives. In the end, they break down the wall, both literally and metaphorically; and its destruction leads to their healing and rebirth. Each of the women has a separate identity, but all blend fluidly as they form an extended family. Their personal histories share certain commonalities: discrimination, racism, and above all, violence and abuse at the hands of men. Yet the suffering that the women share affords them a kind of redemption. The young unwed Mattie (played by Oprah Winfrey, who also co-produced the telefilm) is taken in off the street by Miss Eva, a complete stranger, who helps to raise Mattie’s son as if he were her own. Later Mattie, assuming Eva’s matriarchal role, performs a similar act of generosity towards Ceil. Their maternal bond is typical of the relationships in the film. For example, single, affluent Kiswana—who moves to Brewster Place as part of her social rebellion—befriends poor, uneducated Cora Lee and prompts her to aspire to new goals for herself and her children. And the heterosexual but celibate Mattie helps libertine Etta Mae understand the affection between lesbians Lorraine and Theresa by admitting that all of her life she too has loved women, albeit in a non-sexual way. Adapted from Naylor’s popular novel and brought to the screen by female director Donna Deitsch and screenwriter Karen Hall, The Women of Brewster Place opened up questions about the nature of women’s experience. It also violated familiar expectations of black women. Not defined merely by their sexuality or their relationship to white employers, the telefilm’s characters demonstrate their individual and collective strengths and confirm that the notion of family, consistent with the black female literary tradition, encompasses more than mere blood ties.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

THE PIANO LESSON

Republic Pictures Corp., 1990

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson by the late black playwright August Wilson examined one family’s slave heritage and the tumultuous battle over how best to honor it. Created at the Yale Repertory Theater by Wilson and longtime collaborator Lloyd Richards (who was the first black director on Broadway, with A Raisin in the Sun), The Piano Lesson went on to Broadway, where it received great acclaim. Adapted to film by Wilson and directed by Richards, it was first telecast in 1995 on CBS-TV as a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentation. In the film, Boy Willie (played by Charles Dutton, who starred in the stage version and for whom Wilson originally created the role) arrives in Pittsburgh, where he wants to take possession of the old family piano so that he can sell it and buy a piece of property in Mississippi that his family had once worked as slaves. But the piano is half-owned by Boy Willie’s sister Berniece (Alfre Woodard), a frustrated widow who is unwilling to part with it. Although Berniece no longer plays the piano, for her it represents the spirits of her ancestors, which she is trying to preserve. In the course of the film, the piano itself becomes a character: purchased from a white plantation owner in exchange for “one and a half slaves” (a slave woman and her young son), it bears the family’s blood. Haunted by ghosts, the piano takes on a life of its own and starts playing suddenly without anyone touching its keys. After Boy Willie tries to exorcise the ghosts, he is reminded of his strong kinship with Berniece, which transcends their petty animosities, and he relinquishes his claim. But he makes Berniece promise to keep playing the piano—that is, to keep reconnecting to their past—so the troublesome ghosts do not return. Like the play, the telefilm was a triumph. Wilson was uniformly praised for the way he imbued a conflict between siblings over a single family heirloom with the haunted music and voices of their own ancestors that is their shared and inescapable heritage.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

WAITING TO EXHALE

Twentieth Century-Fox, 1995

Waiting to Exhale, based on Terry McMillan’s bestselling novel about the healing strength of the bonds that exist among black women, confirmed that black life stories—in this case, the stories of black middle-class professionals—offered lucrative possibilities for filmmakers. The central character, television producer Savannah Johnson (played by Whitney Houston and based, in part, on McMillan), moves to Phoenix in the hope of improving both her professional and her social prospects. She soon forms a tight circle with her old college roommate Bernadine (Angela Bassett) and with two other friends Gloria (Loretta Devine) and Robin (Lela Rochon), each of whom has personal issues with which she must deal. Savannah is involved with a married man who is reluctant to leave his wife; Bernadine feels betrayed by her husband’s decision to divorce her for a white woman; Gloria, a single mother, frets over her weight, her teenaged son, and her bisexual ex-husband; and Robin, a highly competent underwriter, is drawn to bad men with good looks. With the support of her “sistah friends,” each woman finds some resolution and creates a new kind of family. The inexhaustible spirit of the well-matched quartet of women helped to raise the story above the usual cinematic soap opera, just as the film’s rich texture and funkiness made it a commercial—and crossover—hit and established Waiting to Exhale as one of Hollywood’s all-time most popular black-cast and black-directed movies. Significantly, the contract that McMillan negotiated with Twentieth Century-Fox gave her unprecedented control over the film adaptation. At the recommendation of her friend, novelist Amy Tan, she personally chose Ron Bass to collaborate with her on the screenplay; and she handpicked black actor/director Forest Whitaker to direct the project. McMillan also ensured that many of the technical and managerial positions were filled by blacks. Thus, as one critic noted, both on screen and off, McMillan “used her clout to empower her own community”; and in that way, she promoted a sense of family in the making of a film about family and the “sisterly” ties among the principal characters.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

SOUL FOOD

Twentieth Century-Fox, 1997

Family gatherings are central to the film Soul Food. At the Sunday dinners in her Chicago home, Mother Joe (Irma P. Hall) serves her trademark Southern soul food, including fried chicken, catfish, cornbread, and black-eyed peas. But, more importantly, through her affection and advice to her three adult daughters, she also offers food for their souls. Teri (Vanessa L. Williams), the oldest, is a high-powered attorney who lives for her work and ignores the problems that are brewing at home with her husband, a lawyer who longs to be a professional musician. Maxine (Viveca A. Fox), the middle sister, is pregnant and married to Kenny, who used to be Teri’s beau, a sisterly rivalry that is exacerbated by money tensions between the two. Bird (Nia Long), the youngest, is married to a man whose criminal past complicates his employment but is being courted by a former boyfriend. The real problems, however, begin when Mother Joe has a diabetes-related stroke: as the bonding dinners cease, the family starts falling apart due to feuds, sexual affairs, and financial maneuverings. It falls to Maxine’s precocious son Ahmad, the narrator, to remind the family of the love that has always held them together. Executive-produced by Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds, the film had a terrific score, with music by artists such as Boyz II Men, En Vogue, L’il Kim, and Tony Tone Toni. Although the film was a sleeper hit, director George Tillman, Jr. recalled that several studios passed on the it because “there wasn’t much of a market for dialogue-oriented, character-driven drama about families.” Yet, he explained, that was precisely why the movie succeeded: “because family is universal” and “people see themselves in the characters.” Soul Food was later spun off into a short-lived television series.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

BELOVED

Touchstone Pictures, 1998

InBeloved, a tortured black woman attempts to reconcile the past and ensure a future for herself and the family whom she desperately loves. Based on Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film effectively combines elements of a slave narrative with those of a ghost story. Directed by Jonathan Demme from a script co-written by Akosua Busia (who starred as Nettie in The Color Purple), Beloved is a tale about Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), a former slave who is haunted by “baby ghost,” the spirit of the adored child she lost eighteen years earlier. Just as it seems that Sethe has finally found a modicum of happiness with her daughter Denver and a new man, Paul D (Danny Glover), a former slave from “Sweet Home,” the same Kentucky plantation where Sethe lived with her late husband, she is startled to find in her front yard a beautiful but almost catatonic young woman. Convinced that her baby girl has returned from the dead, Sethe tries to give “Beloved” everything that her heart can offer and her money can buy. But Beloved, it seems, is after Sethe’s soul—and nearly gets it. After bringing Sethe to near ruin, Beloved disappears again, leaving Sethe even more bereft, at least until Denver locates Paul D and urges him to return. The reunion raises the possibility of their becoming a family at last, a family that loves “thick” and honors the “rememory” of all who are beloved. Glover’s performance as Paul D, a man who has suffered intensely and buried secrets deep within his “red heart,” is truly touching. Kimberly Elise’s Denver is full of repressed emotion and yearning for a life free of the ghosts that haunt her family. And Thandie Newton’s Beloved is bold and sensual, a haunted and haunting spirit made flesh. Yet, while a number of critics responded with enthusiasm for the film and Oprah Winfrey aggressively promoted it, audiences failed to embrace it. Beloved’s disappointing box office not only surprised Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, which had produced it, but also made rival studios wary of supporting large-budget movies involving serious racial family themes.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

A LESSON BEFORE DYING

HBO Pictures, 1999

The most recent of Ernest J. Gaines’ novels to be adapted to the screen, A Lesson Before Dying focused on the author’s familiar themes of manhood, community, and indivisible family ties. In a Louisiana parish in the late 1940s, a young black man named Jefferson (Mekhi Phifer) is convicted of the murder of a white storekeeper. After Jefferson is sentenced to death, his godmother Miss Emma asks Grant Wiggins (Don Cheadle, in an Emmy-winning performance), the local teacher, to meet with him and to help him die like a man. Grant is reluctant at first because he has seen too many disenfranchised young black men ruin their own lives. Jefferson, on the other hand, is full of cynicism and self-loathing, the result of a lifetime of discrimination. But, as the two men learn more about each other, they develop a bond of friendship; and both undergo a remarkable metamorphosis that gives them a better understanding of the value of their lives and the importance of the family that sustains them. The film adaptation, directed by Joseph Sargent for HBO Pictures, was as inspired as it was inspiring. The dramatic opposition of characters—Grant, with his articulate speech and proud bearing, versus Jefferson, with his inarticulateness and shame—is even more dramatic on screen than in the novel. Yet it is Miss Emma, superbly played by Irma P. Hall, who emerges as the film’s most memorable figure. An unselfish black matriarch whose strength and determination keep the family and community together in times of greatest adversity, she maintains her position of moral superiority to whites even while she observes the coded symbols of black inferiority, such as entering the white man’s house from the back door. Like the earlier adaptations of Gaines’ work (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman [1974], The Sky is Gray [1980], and A Gathering of Old Men [1987]), the film version of A Lesson Before Dying is a lesson not so much about dying as about living with dignity and honor, about loving, about survival and endurance, and about the redemptive power of family.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

LACKAWANNA BLUES

HBO Films, 2005

>A heartwarming story of a young boy growing up in upstate New York in the 1950s and 60s, Lackawanna Blues was based on Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Obie-winning autobiographical play. After Ruben Junior’s parents separate, his mother takes him back to her hometown of Lackawanna, where he is entrusted to the care of Rachel “Nanny” Crosby, the owner of a small local boarding house and juke joint. Nanny, whose home has become a kind of waystation for misfits, is quick to offer good food and strong nurturing. The boy soon finds himself surrounded by a cast of eclectic and often eccentric characters—from former convicts to recovering drug addicts—who become part of his extended family and who teach him important lessons about life and love. “These people,” the adult Ruben recalls in his narration, “are like windows. Each one, you see a different path.” But it is Nanny (played with enormous gusto by Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning S. Epatha Merkerson) who is the heart of the house and of the film. From the peas that she carefully shells on her porch to the grease on her ever-bubbling stove, from the candy she carries in her purse to the bills she stashes in her bra, from the scars on her face to the forgiveness in her heart, she is—as several reviewers noted—an emblem of the enduring strength of the black matriarch. The outstanding ensemble cast included Mos Def, Macy Gray, Louis Gossett Jr., Terrence Howard, Ernie Hudson, Delroy Lindo, and Rosie Perez. A remarkably sensitive evocation of the years before integration, when members of the black community found their greatest strength in each other, Lackawanna Blues faithfully recreates the vernacular dialect, the stirring rhythm and blues music, and the other simple social and family rituals that defined both a culture and an age.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

DIARYOF A MAD BLACK WOMAN

Lion’s Gate Films, 2005

Adapted from Tyler Perry’s popular play, the film version of Diary of a Mad Black Woman was both a serious drama about marital betrayal and an over-the-top comic revenge farce. Helen (Kimberly Elise), a faithful and devoted wife, has been married for eighteen years to her pompous lawyer husband Charles (Steve Harris). Just after an awards banquet at which Charles thanks her for the loving support that made his success possible, he informs her that the marriage is over, and he physically ejects her from their Atlanta mansion so that he can move his mistress and their two children in. Forced to rebuild her life, Helen turns to her extended family for help and solace. One of those people—Mable Simmons, better known as Madea—is a wisecracking, gun-toting grandmother (played by Perry in drag) who pushes Helen to avenge Charles’ cruelty by dividing their assets in half, literally, with a chain saw. But Helen copes with the pain of her rejection in other ways, too: she files for divorce, gets a job as a waitress in an upscale restaurant, and meets Orlando (Shemar Moore), a caring and handsome factory worker whose trust in women she must restore. Together, they rediscover love and faith. Those qualities serve Helen well when Charles comes back into her life and she is able to turn the tables on the man who tormented her and broke her heart. The film was a huge hit, especially among black female audiences, who responded enthusiastically to the combination of rage and raucous humor that drove the plot. Yet while viewers cheered Helen’s personal odyssey from heartbreak to triumph, it was the outrageous character of Madea who stole the show. Recognizing her enormous appeal, Tyler Perry wrote and produced a series of follow-up films, including Madea’s Family Reunion (2005), Meet the Browns (2005), I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2009), and Madea Goes to Jail (2009), that exploited her outlandish adventures. Those films not only turned Madea into a household name but also established Perry himself as one of the most successful and influential contemporary black filmmakers.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

THEPURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS

Columbia Pictures, 2006

Among the most common cinematic stereotypes of the contemporary black family is the character of the black father. At worst, he is portrayed as violent, abusive, even incestuous; at best, he is absent or detached. But The Pursuit of Happyness, based on the life of Chris Gardner, reverses that familiar formula. As the film opens, Gardner is a struggling San Francisco salesman who has invested most of his money in a portable bone density scanning machine that he tries to peddle to local doctors. But the machine proves unnecessary, overpriced, and defective. Unable to support his family from its sales, Gardner loses his home, his bank acount, his credit cards, and his marriage. Yet even after his wife moves to New York and leaves him to fend as a single father to their five-year-old son, he refuses to give up hope for a better life. When he wins a prestigious internship at the Dean Witter brokerage house, he believes that his luck has finally changed. But the internship is unpaid, and without any income to sustain them, Gardner and his son are forced to seek out beds at city shelters or sleep in the public bathrooms of bus and train stations. Motivated by the affection and the trust his son has placed in him, however, Gardner remains committed to achieving his dream. Overcoming many obstacles, he successfully completes the internship and earns a coveted position as a stockbroker. The role of Gardner presented a real challenge, and the wrong actor might have played it too broadly. But Will Smith brought precisely the right amount of gravity, humor, and intelligence—although Jaden Smith (real-life son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith), making his film debut as young Christopher, almost steals the movie from his father. The Horatio-Alger aspect of the story clearly added to the film’s appeal: Gardner’s triumph is ultimately a personal one, unencumbered by social or political context. But it is the heartwarming relationship between a single father and his son that gave The Pursuit of Happyness its special poignancy.

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BIRTH OF A NATION

PRECIOUS

Lee Daniels Entertainment, 2009

Few films have painted a grimmer portrait of poverty, abuse, and despair than Precious: Based on the Novel “Push”by Sapphire.. At the same time, few films have offered a more welcome message of hope. Claireece Precious Jones (played by Gabourey Sidibe, in an stunning film debut) is an illiterate, morbidly obese, sixteen-year-old junior-high-school student living in the squalor of Harlem in 1987. Pregnant with her second child, she is already mother to a disabled baby she calls “Mongo” (short for Mongoloid). Both children are the result of repeated rapes by her father, a figure who—except for a few scenes in flashback—is largely absent from the film. Her mother (Mo’Nique) provides little support or balance: jealous of Precious for “stealing” the attentions of her man, she abuses her daughter emotionally and sexually and strips her of all sense of self-worth. It is no wonder that, despite her immense size, Precious feels invisible to everyone around her. To cope with the indescribable misery of her real life, she creates an elaborate fantasy world into which she escapes, a world in which she imagines herself as a black celebrity with a light-skinned boyfriend, an adorable little dog, and a fabulous wardrobe, or as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl. Eventually, though, Precious learns to rely on a cadre of women who become her surrogate mothers, especially Blue Rain (Paula Patton), the teacher at her alternative school who takes a genuine interest in her and encourages her to pursue her talents. The performances by Oscar-nominated lead actress Sidibe, supporting actress Mo’Nique (who earned virtually all of the year’s most coveted awards, including the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild Award, and the Academy Award), and the entire ensemble cast were remarkable. Consequently, Precious deftly managed to challenge the cinematic clichés of the uneducated teenage mother, lazy welfare queen, selfless teacher, and overworked social worker to present a raw inner-city saga of transformation and triumph that cannot easily be forgotten. Directed by Lee Daniels, the producer of Monster’s Ball (the film for which Halle Berry won a Best Actress Oscar in 2002) and only the second black director in Academy Award history to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, the film was executive-produced by the industry powerhouses Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Reviewers uniformly praised Precious, calling it a poignant and shocking near-Gothic story of a child tormented by the cruelty of adults and “a genuine work of art” determined to challenge its audience’s complacency. Moreover, its graphic and painfully honest portrayal of a young woman’s exploitation and abandonment confirms just how much black representation, especially the depiction of the black family, has evolved over more than a century of film.

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