A CENTURY OF FILM
A Complete History
As film enters the 21st century, black actors, actresses, directors, writers and producers have become financial and creative forces in the entertainment industry. Legends and stars like Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, Spike Lee, Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Jamie Foxx command as much respect in film history as their white counterparts. But it wasn't always that way.
"It has been a long journey to this moment," said Sidney Poitier in Hollywood as he was presented with an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Lilies of the Field in 1963. He was the first black actor to achieve this award, although in 1939 Hattie McDaniel was chosen Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind. The long journey for black actors of which Poitier spoke began long before sound, before color, to the birth of modern movie making when the stereotypes were firmly set from which black actors have not yet been completely freed.
At the turn of the 20th century, a cultural revolution took place. Almost overnight, every neighborhood and town had a nickelodeon, a small makeshift theater where anyone could gaze in awe at the new process of "moving pictures." In addition to images of exotic locals from around the world, a wide array of stories and subjects including famous books or popular plays were cut down to the length of a modern day music video. Minorities were represented as stereotypes: the drunken Irishman, the greedy Jew or the watermelon eating Negro. Following the tradition of minstrel shows, black roles were portrayed on film by white actors in blackface. Typical films of the period were Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), Nigger in the Woodpile (1904), The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905), The Masher (1907) and the two series, Rastus (1910) and Sambo (1909-1911), which pictured their characters as humorous, lazy, shiftless and with minimal intelligence. These stereotypical exaggerations were what white America associated with blacks and became the basis for the racial tension that stood in Hollywood for decades until well after World War II.
A Century of Black Film is an attempt to trace the path of the black contribution to American movies, marking the milestones, tragedies, ironies and humor of the journey. It is a memorial to the determination and little-known achievements of pioneers Noble Johnson, Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams; to the unexplored talents of Nina Mae McKinney, Daniel Haynes, Fredi Washington, Louise Beavers and a thousand others; to the dignity of Ethel Waters and Clarence Muse; to the humanity and stature of Paul Robeson, a man ahead of his times; to the genius of Rex Ingram, Stepin Fetchit, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Hattie McDaniel that rose above the consciousness of the years in which they worked; to the beauty and tragedy of Dorothy Dandridge; and to all of the others who came before Sidney Poitier.
It is also the story of those who followed Poitier and their places in that journey. It is a social history, a diary, a study in human behavior, a lesson in economics, a counterpoint of talent wasted and talent triumphant; one which may lead us to wonder if we have reached the journey's end or have taken only the few first steps.
BIRTH OF A NATION
D. W Griffith Corp., 1915
The Birth of a Nation is a classic of American cinema. Its director, D.W. Griffith, combined and used innovative techniques of editing, parallel storylines and close-ups that resulted in one of the most important films of all times. Unfortunately, it is also the grandfather of all racist films. This conflict between its cinematic greatness and its blatant bigotry also makes it one of the medium's most controversial films.
The film is based on the 1905 novel and stage play The Clansman, which Southern evangelist Thomas Dixon wrote in reply to the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Dixon, a racist, later tried to defend himself by saying that his purpose had been "to teach the North what it has never known - the awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful reconstruction period - to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme." Griffith, also a southerner, jumped at the story.
On the surface, the film depicts a distorted view of the Reconstruction Era of the South in which black characters are either gentle, loyal servants or fiery renegades, lusting for power or, worse, white women. In one memorable sequence, a renegade black pursues a fragile young white woman. Terrified, she refuses to submit to him, and determined to keep her southern honor, runs from him and throws herself off a cliff. Perhaps no other film has as powerfully articulated the bigoted white American nightmare of black aggression and male sexuality.
A spectacular epic of over three hours, the film traveled throughout the United States with its own musical score and a full orchestra. White audiences, dazzled by Griffith's technical innovations and his race theme, flocked to see it. African-American audiences were so outraged that the NAACP launched an organized protest against the film in an effort to have it banned and boycotted.
A MAN'S DUTY
Lincoln Motion Picture Co., 1919
In 1916, Universal Pictures actor Noble Johnson founded the black owned and operated Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles. It was the first in the United States to produce and distribute films of and by blacks, portraying themselves in other than humiliating slapstick comedies. The company's first films, The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916), The Trooper of Company K (1916) and The Law of Nature (1917) all starred Johnson. The national demand for Lincoln product became so great that Universal Pictures, pressured by their new competition, forced Johnson, who was now receiving top billing in his own films, to resign as President.
In 1919 Lincoln released A Man's Duty, starring Clarence Brooks in the lead role, to packed houses around the United States, Cuba and the Bahamas breaking all black theater attendance records. Despite all of its success, in 1923 the company discontinued operations.
Norman Film Manufacturing Co., 1923
Bill Pickett, an authentic black American cowboy and Wild West Show star, is credited as the father of "bull-dogging," the art of biting the tender part of a steer's lip and wrestling it to the ground (a technique he learned from watching his dog Spike herding cattle). Nicknamed "the Dusky Demon," Pickett worked alongside Will Rogers and Tom Mix during their early days at the famous Miller Brothers 101 Ranch in Boley, Oklahoma and toured with their traveling Wild West Show throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America and England.
Not as well known is that Pickett was America's first black cowboy star and appeared in two movies for the Norman Film Manufacturing Co. of Jacksonville, Florida. With the success that black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux and The Lincoln Motion Picture Company had been enjoying, Richard Norman, who was white, saw a new market in "race films" and hired Pickett to perform in his feature films The Crimson Skull (1921) and The Bull Dogger(1923).
Arguably the most famous rodeo performer of all time, Pickett died in 1932 after being kicked in the head by a horse. In 1971, he was honored as the first black cowboy to be inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.
THE JAZZ SINGER
Vitaphone Corp./Warner Bros., 1927
For its first synchronous sound and spoken film, or "talkie," Hollywood looked not to black actors or entertainers but to an enduring, if antiquated, aspect of black American popular culture. The Jazz Singer, based on The Day of Atonement (1922), a short story by Samson Raphaelson starred white singer Al Jolson as Jakie Rabinowitz, a cantor's son who chooses assimilation over his family's faith. For his big premiere on Broadway, Jakie appears as a minstrel-type singer and performs a vulgarized blackface act, which included Jolson's signature song, "My Mammy."
The device of showcasing music within the context of a musical show, especially the "Tom shows" based on Uncle Tom's Cabin, was a natural for movies, since it permitted a maximum of singing with a minimal story line. The Jazz Singer, however, managed to empty Jolson's "pathetic figure in blackface" of its iconic suffering and to focus instead on the Jewish dilemma of integration and intermarriage. Jolson went on to reprise his burnt cork minstrelsy role from The Jazz Singer in another hit film, The Singing Fool (1928).
HEARTS IN DIXIE
The Jazz Singer introduced the talking motion picture to American movie audiences in 1927. Two years later, continuing the transition of sound into the medium and with its new profits, Hollywood studios began to look to black life for the subject of some of their feature films.
Originally conceived as a two-reel musical showcase of spirituals and minstrel comedy, Hearts in Dixie so impressed the producers in the rough cuts that writers expanded it into a feature length film. The first all-black-cast, all-talking musical to reach the screen, the film captures plantation life in the idyllic rural black South following the Civil War. Prominent among the cast were Clarence Muse, Mildred Washington, Gertrude Howard, Zack Williams and Hollywood's first truly controversial black star, Stepin Fetchit.
Born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, he took his stage name from a racehorse and headed off to vaudeville. In 1927, Fetchit landed in and first appeared in the film In Old Kentucky in which his comic rhythm and lazy shuffling demeanor immediately made an impact on screen. In his break-through appearance in Hearts of Dixie, his buffoon mannerisms and shiftless behavior, managed to excite and delight white audiences and quickly became his Hollywood trademark. Fetchit was the first major black film personality and millionaire. His controversial stereotypical mannerisms and legendary behavior off screen, much to the dismay of African-Americans audiences, lasted for decades until they tired of his belittling and racist clowning.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1929
Hollywood's second all-black-cast musical represented the culmination of director King Vidor's long-standing desire for a project dealing with the lives of African Americans. His childhood experiences of having witnessed mass baptisms and religious ceremonies of the employees of his father's lumber mills in Galveston, Texas strongly influenced him. To quiet MGM's doubts about the commercial viability of the film, Vidor convincingly offered to defer his sizeable salary.
Hallelujah introduced sixteen-year-old Nina Mae McKinney fresh off the Broadway stage production of Blackbirds. Her standout performance as the temptress Chick earned her a five-year contract with MGM. Vidor intended Paul Robeson to play the male lead, but when he was unavailable, the role of Zeke was given to Daniel Haynes, then an understudy in Broadway's Show Boat.
Hollywood was still decades away from casting studio films with African-American lead actors and MGM failed to produce another film in this genre until Cabin in the Sky (1943).
Micheaux Pictures Corp., 1931
In a career that spanned almost thirty years, Oscar Micheaux became the most successful early black independent film producer and the first black film auteur. Micheaux's films, however, were not technically brilliant. Forced to work on very tight budgets, he had to shoot scenes in the homes or offices of his friends and in empty, outdated studios. He would rent equipment by the day. 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.
Even Micheaux's later films rarely cost more than $20,000 to produce. By contrast, D. W. Griffith produced The Birth of a Nation in 1915 for $100,000; and the 1927 Carl Laemmle major studio production of Uncle Tom's Cabin, directed by Harry A. Pollard, was budgeted at $2,000,000. 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 many of his films from his own novels and cast black characters in non-stereotypical roles-as farmers, oil men, explorers, professors, Broadway producers, and Secret Service agents.
A milestone in American film history, The Exile (1931) was the first all-black-cast independently produced "talkie" (or sound film). Based on Micheaux's autobiographical novel The Conquest (1913), it followed the adventures of Jean Baptiste, an ambitious "decent colored man" who travels to South Dakota to establish his own homestead and falls in love with a woman whom he believes to be white. The film, which enjoyed a successful run in New York, was censored by the Pennsylvania Board of Censors, which objected to a scene of Baptiste kissing a white woman (who is later revealed to have "Negro blood"). Although the film generated much controversy, it gave hope to other race filmmakers that black films could compete in the new market of sound movies.
United Artists, 1933
Although Hollywood's African jungle films were at worst blatantly racist and at best distorted or contrived, they did offer occasional employment to many of the finest actors of the day, including Clarence Muse, Dorothy Dandridge, Noble Johnson, Daniel Haynes, and Rex Ingram. But even as brilliant an actor as Paul Robeson found himself frequently typecast in such limiting and often insulting productions.
In The Emperor Jones, a critically hailed film based on Eugene O'Neill's play (which was one of the first important attempts by a white writer to deal with black characters in a serious drama). Robeson successfully re-created his role as antihero Brutus Jones, an American ex-Pullman porter, who-by sheer nerve-becomes emperor of a tropical island, assumes a dictatorship, and is finally killed by the natives. A commanding black character who is the intellectual and social equal of whites, Jones did not fall into the traditional categories of comic servant or naïve folk type. Robeson's nuanced portrayal of Jones remains among his most memorable screen performances.
Yet, while later films like Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937), Song of Freedom (1937), and King Solomon's Mines (1937) returned Robeson to similarly exotic locales, they failed to offer parts with the same substance or sense of majesty.
Robeson accepted some of these roles in the hope that they might foster awareness of racial folk motifs, including native songs and dances; but most of the films were disappointingly formulaic, even imperialistic. Robeson's hopes for engendering major changes in the industry, like those of other actors and activists, were for the most part frustrated.
RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT
Warner Brothers/Vitaphone, 1933
A 16-minute fantasy satire on politics in which a little boy dreams that he becomes President of the U.S. and his 'mammy' is Vice President. The film spotlights two now legendary performers much earlier in their careers: Ethel Waters and Sammy Davis Jr. In his first screen appearance, around the age of seven, pint-sized Davis sings, dances and clowns.
Nicknamed 'the beanpole' slim and slinky Waters looks far different from the heavier figure she displayed in Pinky (1949) and Member of the Wedding (1953). Statuesque in a long glamorous white gown, she sings her big hit "Am I Blue." Davis, in turn sings "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You."
Les Films H Roussillon, 1933
Born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906, Josephine Baker became one of the best known entertainers in the world. A self-taught dancer, Baker worked her way to New York and a place in the Broadway chorus line of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's musical comedy Shuffle Along (1922) followed by Broadway's Chocolate Dandies (1924) and a floor show at the Plantation Club featuring Ethel Waters.
Still a teenager, Baker moved from Harlem to Paris where the wave of French enthusiasm for "Le Jazz Hot" quickly brought her international fame as an expatriate. It was after joining the Folies-Bergere that Baker's infamous erotic dancing, with feathers and a G-string made of bananas, made her a sensation.
In 1927, Baker made her first film, La Sirene des Tropiques, a romantic comedy that met with wide audience appreciation. Between founding a nightclub Chez Josephine, touring, and continual performances at the Casino de Paris, she made two other films. Zou Zou (1934), loosely based on her own life, and Princess Tam Tam (1935), a Pygmalion fantasy in which she plays an African beauty who is passed off on Parisian society as a Princess. Films, however, were only a temporary diversion for Baker whose real niche was the cabaret.
Baker was an early and outspoken advocate for equal rights, often criticizing the U.S. for its racial policies. Racism severely marred her many visits to America during the 1950s and 1960s and the outspoken Baker refused to perform in cities that treated blacks as second-class citizens. In 1963, at the peak of the civil rights movement, she proudly joined Martin Luther King for the infamous march on Washington. The 1960s, however, were a difficult time for Baker.
The expense of running her chateau, Les Milandes, in Dordogne, France, where she had raised twelve adopted children, proved too great of a burden and she faced eviction. Her close friend, Princess Grace of Monaco, arranged for them to move to a villa in the South of France. She continued to give concerts around the world although bookings became more difficult with age. On April 8,1975, Baker opened a revue in Paris to mark her 50th year in show business. Two days later, however, after slipping into a coma while she slept, she died.
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.
Based on the best-selling novel by Fanny Hurst, the film told the story of two poor widows, the white Bea (Claudette Colbert) and the black Delilah (Louise Beavers), 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 restaurateurs 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 defies racial standards and pretends to be white. Only after the stoic Delilah dies, her heart broken by her daughter's betrayal, does Peola 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 freedom and equal justice struck a responsive note with many black viewers. The inequities that Peola rebels against are readily apparent in the relationship between her mother and Bea, which reveals much about race relations at the time.
Although Delilah is solely responsible for the success of the business, she accepts a highly inequitable 20%-80% partnership split and continues working as Bea's "girl," even though she can easily afford her own home. A loyal "auntie" to her darling "missy," Delilah remains as deferential as she is subservient. Yet it is she who teaches the importance of loyalty and family values not only to Peola but also to Bea and her daughter; and her selflessness is honored by the biggest funeral ever seen in Harlem.
The film, an immediate hit with white audiences, was also popular with black moviegoers, who appreciated its innovative, at times subversive approach to contemporary concerns. The film was re-made less effectively in 1959, with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore as the two widows.
THE GREEN PASTURES
Warner Brothers, 1936
Although the poor box office showing of the first black-cast musicals Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah in 1929 made the studios reluctant to take a chance on another black Hollywood spectacle, in 1936 Warner Brothers released The Green Pastures, a feature-length all-black musical based on Marc Connelly's long-running Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
It is the story of Mr. Deshee, a kindly old black Sunday school teacher in Louisiana, who makes the Bible stories come alive by transforming the biblical characters into contemporary men and women.
The film included some of the finest actors of the day: Rex Ingram as De Lawd, a patriarchal Jehovah who dresses like a Southern gentleman; Eddie Anderson as Noah, a good man who finds it hard to resist a taste of tobacco and alcohol; Oscar Polk as Archangel Gabriel, De Lawd's capable but understated assistant; and Ernest Whitman as the sadistic Pharaoh.
By playing multiple roles, the actors created a clever continuity within the stories: Ingram, for example, appeared not only as De Lawd but also as Adam and Hezdrel, while the children in Mr. Deshee's class doubled as heavenly cherubs serenaded by the spirituals of the famous Hall Johnson Choir.
While the white press unanimously hailed the film as a sublime and heartbreaking masterpiece of American folk drama, black audiences rejected its demeaning and stereotypical racial portrayals. (Among the most offensive was the notion of black Heaven as a "big fish fry in the sky.") Nonetheless, The Green Pastures was enormously popular; on opening day at Radio City Music Hall in New York, tickets sold at the rate of 6,000 per hour. Held over for an entire year's run at some theaters, The Green Pastures went on to become one of the most successful black-cast films of all time.
SPIRIT OF YOUTH
Grand National, 1937
Joe Louis, "the Brown Bomber," who many consider to be the greatest boxer of all time, makes his acting debut as Joe Thomas, a poor fighter who climbs to the top by learning the value of self defense. Unfortunately, he forfeits his training for the romantic lure of a woman and the nightlife in a big city.
From the time he began his professional career in 1934 until he retired as champion, Louis lost only one bout, a defeat by the German Max Schmelling in 1936 that he avenged two years later in one of the most memorable events in American sports history. Louis held the heavyweight boxing championship longer than any fighter had in history (from1937 to 1949) and retired with sixty-eight victories in seventy-one fights, and fifty-four knockouts.
However, it was not merely for his stunning record that America remembers Joe Louis. He was a figure of national importance and a symbol of opportunity to his race. Each victory elevated him higher in the hearts and minds of African Americans as a living icon of black pride.
Unfortunately, after Louis' retirement in 1949 he became a shadow of his past greatness. Interestingly, it was the end of both Louis' domination of boxing and segregation in American sports. By the early 1950s, Louis lost his unique place as the symbol for African Americans when dozens of other black athletes, including Jackie Robinson, Jersey Joe Walcott, Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Mays, broke through the race barriers in sports.
THE BRONZE BUCKAROO
Hollywood Productions, 1938
Filmed at the "all-colored" N.B. Murray dude ranch near Victorville, California, The Bronze Buckaroo was one of a series of late 1930s all-black cast Westerns including Harlem on the Prairie, Two Gun Man From Harlem, and Harlem Rides the Range.
Bob Blake, the good cowpoke and singing cowboy, played by Herb Jeffries (here billed as Herbert Jeffrey), and his sidekick Dusty, played by Flournoy Miller, were characters much beloved by black children who spent Saturday afternoons in segregated movie houses. "Stout of heart, quick of eye, sweet of voice," The Bronze Buckaroo served as a role model for them.
Jeffries is the last surviving member of the 1940 Duke Ellington Orchestra and though not really a jazz singer, a fine interpreter of swing songs. He performed with Earl Hines, Erskine Tate, and Blanche Calloway in the early '30s, but gained his greatest fame while with Ellington, having a big hit with "Flamingo," after becoming an actor and the first black singing cowboy. He remained an active club singer with occasional recordings of ballads, standards and western songs into the mid-1990s.
International Roadshows, 1940
Clarence Muse starred in and co-wrote the screenplay for this independently made all-black drama. His role, as a dignified professional concert violinist injured in a car accident and left unable to play, is perhaps his finest and far from the porter, janitor or servant types for which he was cast in Hollywood.
Featured in this film, although not credited in the poster, is Matthew Beard, better known as Stymie from the popular "Our Gang" comedy series. Veteran actor and one of the founders of the Lincoln Motion Picture, Clarence Brooks, also appears, playing a doctor again, a role that won him an Academy Award Honorable Mention in Arrowsmith (1931).
Muse, who was not afraid to criticize the parts played by black actors in major films, openly objected to Gone With the Wind (1939) and set out to write a script that would refute its offensive stereotypes. He also recognized the importance of black films portraying the true history of the Negro. The Pittsburgh Courier quoted him as saying: "I simply wish to tell the truth about our race during the early days."
BROTHER MARTIN SERVANT OF JESUS
Jenkins and Bourgeois Productions, 1942
Although most Americans remember Spencer Williams only as Andy Brown on the short-lived CBS Television version of Amos N' Andy (1950-53), his film work in Texas during the 1940s was his most significant achievement.
Williams, a black screen actor, writer, and director was born on July 14, 1893, in Vidalia, Louisiana. He moved as a teenager to New York City, where he became a call-boy for Oscar Hammerstein and a student in comedy under Vaudeville comedian Bert Williams. During the early days of sound, Christy Studios in Hollywood hired Williams as a writer for a series of black-cast short films. At the same time, he also acted in several low-budget productions meant solely for black audiences such as Georgia Rose (1930), Bad Boy (1939), and several all-black-cast westerns including Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Bronze Buckaroo (1938), Harlem Rides the Range (1939), and Two-gun Man From Harlem (1939).
In the early 1940s, Williams met Alfred Sack, a Dallas-based film distributor whose company, Sack Amusements, provided 'ethnic films' for many theaters in the Southwest. When Sack offered to back Williams financially in a series of feature films for black audiences, Williams eagerly agreed to write, direct, and act in what became a series of ten films. The content of the films varied from religious: The Blood of Jesus (1941), Brother Martin (1942), Go Down Death (1944); to comedy: Dirty Gerty From Harlem, U.S.A. (1946), Beale Street Mama (1946), Juke Joint (1947); to drama: Marchin' On (1943), Of One Blood (1944), The Girl in Room 20 (1945).
Williams found Sack to be a 'hands-off backer' which enabled him to direct his own screenplays as he saw fit; something that few black artists other than the pioneer black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux succeeded in doing.
CABIN IN THE SKY
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1943
Providing a much needed escape for African-American movie audiences during World War II, this Vincente Minnelli film, his first for MGM was an exceptional all-black, all-star, musical fantasy and morality tale about the eternal struggle of a man caught in a tug of war between heaven and hell.
The action transpires in a Wizard of Oz style dream of Little Joe Jackson (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) who lies unconscious from a wound inflicted by a gambler. Good and evil take on human form and compete for Rochester's favor who is torn between the loyalty of his good Christian wife Petunia (Ethel Waters) and the temptations of the adulterous hussy Georgia Brown (Lena Horne.) Added to the cast are a treasure trove of talent including Rex Ingram, Mantan Morland, John 'Bubbles' Sublett, Willie Best, Kenneth Spencer, Oscar Polk, Ford Washington Lee, Butterfly McQueen, Ernest Whitman, Nick Stewart and Ruby Dandridge with featured musical numbers by the Hall Johnson Choir, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Beginning her long-term contract with MGM, singer Horne made an auspicious film debut as the seductress Georgia Brown. In most of her other films however, her appearances were marginalized with an isolated song or two having nothing to do with the plotline. When it was felt that her scenes might offend southern audiences, her sequences were simply cut. Though she became the first black woman in film to be fully glamorized and publicized by her studio, a look at her short list of movie credits fails to define her success in Hollywood. She became a huge star based on only three or four pictures.
Renowned artist Al Hirschfeld, on staff at MGM early in his career, designed the poster.
20th Century Fox, 1943
On July 21,1943, only three months after MGM released the groundbreaking Cabin in the Sky, Fox premiered another all-black, all-star musical that again celebrated the best of African-American entertainment Stormy Weather is a lavish musical revue based on the memories of dancer Bill Williamson (tap dancing icon Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson) who, using flashbacks, relates the story to a group of admiring neighborhood children of his climb up the showbiz ladder and on-off romance with Selina Rogers (Lena Horne). The film's thin plot, disguised as a love story, strings together the singing and dancing numbers that becomes a showpiece for all of the luminary entertainers including Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Ada Brown, the Nicholas Brothers, Dooley Wilson and Katherine Dunham, among many others.
The title song provided a professional signature for Horne's career and the film gave Robinson a welcomed opportunity to display his extraordinary terpsichorean skills without his usual sidekick Shirley Temple.
Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather marked the high point of Hollywood's all-black-cast musicals.
Astor Pictures, 1945
Although jazz and rhythm-and-blues star Louis Jordan temporarily left the bandstand to make movies Caldonia (1945), Beware (1946), Look-Out Sister (1946), and Reet Petite and Gone (1947) he always carried his music and a horn with him. Though short on plot, his films set him at the center of the action, making excellent use of his outgoing, charismatic, and mildly manic personality. Caldonia, an eighteen-minute extended short, with Jordan sporting a zoot suit with a "reet pleat and a drape shape," became enormously popular and his most famous.
Born in Arkansas in 1908, Jordan joined Chick Webb's orchestra in 1936, occasionally performing vocals with Ella Fitzgerald and recording duets with Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. By 1938, he fronted his own group, the Tympany Five, and in the 1940s had jukeboxes jumping with "Knock Me a Kiss," "Choo Choo Ch' Boogie," "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens," "Five Guys Named Moe," and "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" With a massive following, both black and white, Jordan was a major influence on such 1950s stars as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, and Ray Charles. By the early 1960s, however, with declining record sales due to the fickle public, Jordan virtually retired from performing and recording, making a few rare appearances at festivals and clubs. He died in California in 1975.
SONG OF THE SOUTH
Walt Disney Pictures, 1946
In 1945 actor James Baskett answered an ad to provide the voice of a talking butterfly in Walt Disney's Song of the South. Upon hearing his voice, Walt Disney not only gave Baskett the part of the butterfly's voice, but also the voice of Br'er Fox and the leading role of Uncle Remus. He was the first live actor hired by Walt Disney.
Song of the South is a combination of live action drama mixed with animation sequences based on the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris. Harris, a Georgian newspaperman during the Civil War, had compiled former plantation slave stories of fables and folk wisdom transported from the west coast of Africa to the Sea Coast Islands of Georgia.
The story revolves around a young boy temporarily sent to a post-Reconstruction southern plantation in Georgia, after his parents have separated. There, he finds happiness and comfort in the magical stories of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear, told to him by Uncle Remus, a kind elderly former slave. Uncle Remus himself finds pleasure in entertaining the plantation children with his tales of animal adventures, revealing his moral insights and his philosophical outlook.
Yet, while Southern audience response 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 and it was discreetly withdrawn from circulation due to charges of racism. The NAACP acknowledged the "remarkable artistic merit and racial harmony" of the film, but criticized it for distorting the black plantation experience, making slavery appear pleasant and pretending it did not exist.
The film received an Academy Award for Best Song (Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah) and Baskett received an honorary Oscar for his dignified portrayal of Uncle Remus.
HI DE HO
All American, 1947
Cab Calloway's musical signature over the decades is a fitting title for this nine-minute musical short. Veteran musicians Doc Cheatham, Ben Webster and Milt Hinton, among others, provided the music for Cab's "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues," "Hi-De-Ho Miracle Man," and "Frisco Flo."
Calloway's significance in the history of black entertainment gives this little film a documentary value as well. In the 1930s and early 1940s his band contained some of the finest up-and-coming jazz legends, including Dizzy Gillespie, Chu Berry, Eddie Barefield and Illinois Jacquet. When Calloway wasn't exploiting the idiom of scat singing and jive vocal novelties like "Minnie the Moocher," the band concentrated on jazz instrumentals that are still highly regarded today.
In 1971, going down a reception line at the White House during the Nixon Administration, the President shook hands with Cab and said "Mr. Ellington, it's so good that you're here. Pat and I just love your music."
Astor Pictures, 1948
After Oscar Micheaux, the leading black independent filmmaker of the 1920s and 1930s, could no longer compete financially with the Hollywood studios that were producing increasingly successful black-oriented and black-cast films, he reluctantly left the industry to resume writing novels. In 1948, he produced his final film The Betrayal, that was based on his novel The Wind from Nowhere, which in turn reworked themes and characters from his earlier novels and films.
The self-proclaimed "strangest love story ever" told of a young black homesteader in the Dakota wilderness was promoted as the "greatest Negro photoplay of all time." Yet everything about it was substandard. As one reviewer noted, "the acting is worse than amateurish; the dialogue ridiculous; the story downright stupid." With a running time of three hours and fifteen minutes, it was among the longest films ever produced, second only to Gone With the Wind. Production costs exceeded $100,000, a significant portion of which comprised Micheaux's own investment.
Released by the white-owned Astor Pictures, The Betrayal opened at the Mansfield Theater, the first time that an all-black film was given a Broadway premiere. Unfortunately, it failed completely at the box office and was withdrawn after just a few showings. No copy of it exists today.
Micheaux's financial loss was so severe that he never recovered. Despite his arthritis and his immobility, he was forced to go back on the road to sell his books. In 1951, during one of those trips, he fell ill and died, in virtual obscurity.
Only recently have Micheaux's tremendous accomplishments gained the critical appreciation by film historians and the recognition by the motion picture industry that they so richly deserve. Today, Micheaux is hailed as the first great black filmmaker in America.
HOME OF THE BRAVE
United Artists/Astor Pictures, 1949
Shot on a shoestring budget without big name stars and with an offbeat subject matter, Home of the Brave launched Hollywood's cycle of "message films" in the late 1940s.
In the successful Broadway play by Arthur Laurents on which the film is based, the hero was a young Jewish soldier, the victim of anti-Semitism within the military. In the film, however, producer Stanley Kramer substituted a black character for the Jewish protagonist. Through a series of flashbacks, Home of the Brave describes the emotional breakdown of a young African-American army private, Peter Moss, played by James Edwards.
As he undergoes examination by a sympathetic medical captain, Moss unravels his tale, revealing a number of racial incidents he endured while on a special five-man mission to a Japanese-held island during the Second World War. Repeatedly harassed by his fellow soldiers, Moss cracks up under the pressure. The viewer learns, however, it is not the island experience alone that leads to the black soldier's breakdown. It is the crippling frustration of a lifetime of discrimination.
The film was the first post-war film to focus directly on racial discrimination and was also the first in which caustic words and phrases such as nigger and nigger lover, were uttered on screen. Its forthrightness and honesty was historic and marked the turning point for African Americans and their depiction by Hollywood. Ultimately, it led the way for other films to explore and condemn prejudice.
20th Century Fox, 1949
After World War II, Hollywood began to examine its own racial prejudices in light of recent events in Europe. Among the cycle of socially relevant "message films" that emerged in 1949, Home of the Brave, Lost Boundaries, and Intruder in the Dust, Pinky holds a prominent place. All released when segregation and racial violence were facts in America and before any major civil rights legislation had been enacted or enforced.
Pinky (played by the white actress Jeanne Crain) tells the story of a light-skinned black girl from southern Mississippi, who, while studying nursing in the North, passes for white. Fearing the consequences of her engagement to a white doctor she returns home to the South to live with her grandmother, Dicey Johnson, a strong and moral woman, played by veteran African-American actress Ethel Waters. Dicey chastises Pinky for passing because it is dishonest and reveals a lack of pride in one's heritage.Facing the grim reality of being black in the old South, Pinky eventually comes to a new racial awareness. She is called upon to nurse Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore), an old, aristocratic white woman who is terminally ill. Intuitively aware of Pinky's dilemma, Miss Em befriends her and upon her death, leaves Pinky her decaying mansion. Pinky, however, fights Miss Em's family in court to retain her inheritance. She wins and converts the mansion into "Miss Em's Nursery and Training School" for African-American nurses.
Actress Lena Horne reminisces about the Hollywood of the late 1940s and early 1950s. In one of her stories, she tells how white actresses Jeanne Crain and Ava Gardner beat her out of the roles of light-skinned black women in Pinky and Show Boat (1951), two early films that touched on the race problem. At that time, however, film studios found it unthinkable to use an African-American actress for an interracial romantic role, as audiences would have fiercely objected. Not until Dorothy Dandridge's appearance opposite white actor John Justin in 1957's Island in the Sun was the film industry brave enough to have a truly interracial couple on the screen.
THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY
Eagle Lion Films Inc., 1950
As a student at UCLA in 1940, Jackie Robinson developed the numerous skills involved in playing baseball, basketball, football, and track that earned him a statewide reputation in sports. He played professional football with the Los Angeles Bulldogs in 1941, and after service as a lieutenant in World War II returned to the East Coast where he was signed by a minor-league Brooklyn Dodgers farm club, the Montreal Royals. After winning the league's batting title in 1946, Robinson became the first African American to play major-league baseball, joining the National League as first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers and making his debut on April 15, 1947.
Racist spectators and opponents publicly provoked him, but conscious of his unique position as a role model, he managed to ignore all racial epithets, even when his own teammates circulated a petition to eject him from the team. Leading the National League in stolen bases, he was subsequently named Rookie of the Year (1947) and also won the National League batting title and the Most Valuable Player award (1949).
After leading the Dodgers to their 1949 pennant, Robinson took time off to star in this low budget Hollywood film about the story of his life with co-stars Rudy Dee, Louise Beavers, Joel Fluellen, Bernie Hamilton and Kenny Washington.
Robinson played with the Brooklyn Dodgers throughout his entire major-league career (1947-1956). Having endured years of openly expressed racial prejudice, he became the first African American to receive recognition in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1962. He succeeded in breaking racial barriers and paving the way for other black athletes to participate in professional sports. As a tribute, in 1997, major league baseball retired Robinson's jersey number 42 in every major league ballpark.
SALUTE TO DUKE ELLINGTON
Universal International, 1950
A fifteen-minute short featuring the most important composer in the history of jazz; Duke Ellington, and his orchestra. Numbers included "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," "Take the A-Train," "Violet Blue," "A History of Jazz in Three Minutes," and "She Wouldn't Be Moved".
As a bandleader, he held his large group together continuously for almost fifty years. Ellington used his band as a musical laboratory for his new compositions and shaped his writing specifically to showcase the talents of his band members, many of who remained with him for long periods. Ellington also wrote scores for film and stage, and several of his instrumental works were adapted into songs that became musical standards. In addition to touring year in and year out, he recorded extensively, resulting in a gigantic body of work that is still being assessed thirty years after his death.
20th Century Fox, 1954
With magnificent lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II set to the music of Georges Bizet, Carmen Jones was an Americanized all-black version of the classic opera Carmen (which was based, in turn, on a novella by Prosper Merimée).
Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge), a sexy "hot bundle," lures Joe (Harry Belafonte), a handsome soldier headed for Officers' Flight School, away from his sweetheart, Cindy Lou (Olga James), and causes tensions with his sergeant (Brock Peters). Although Joe deserts his regiment and runs away with Carmen, she soon tires of him and takes up with a heavyweight prizefighter, Husky Miller (Joe Adams), in a betrayal that prompts Joe's tragic revenge.
With the part of Carmen, Dorothy Dandridge established herself as a major talent in Hollywood; unfortunately, her later roles were disappointing and did not allow her to fulfill her great promise. Even though both Dandridge and Belafonte were accomplished singers, neither had the necessary operatic range, so their voices were dubbed by Marilyn Horne (then a nineteen-year-old student at USC) and LaVern Hutcherson.
Featured in the film as Carmen's gold-digging friends were Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll. Directed by Otto Preminger, Carmen Jones was nominated for two Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nomination for Dandridge (the first black woman to be so honored); and it won a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture.
SATCHMO THE GREAT
United Artists, 1957
Louis Armstong is the first and still perhaps the brightest star of jazz, the most influential musician of the twentieth century and one of the best known, best loved entertainers in the world.
Originally recorded for an Edward R. Murrow's CBS See It Now broadcast, Satchmo the Great documents Armstrong's goodwill tour of Africa and Europe. It was later expanded as a feature film by bridging the various performance segments and interviews with the charcoal sketches of the great artist and photographer Ben Shahn.
The film was a far cry from the stereotypical antics Armstrong was required to act out in Hollywood motion pictures such as Pennies From Heaven (1936), Going Places (1938), and Cabin in the Sky (1943), and others. Among the songs performed were "Mack the Knife," "Indiana," and "Struttin' With Some Barbecue." Featured on the tour was W.C. Handy, who plays his all time classic, "St. Louis Blues." Altogether, Armstrong appeared in over fifty musical shorts and feature films.
PORGY AND BESS
Columbia Pictures, 1959
Based on Dubose Hayward's 1925 novel Porgy, a subsequent dramatized Broadway production and its operatic adaptation by George and Ira Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, the film, ended the thirty year cycle of extravagant all-black-cast Hollywood musicals that had begun with Hearts in Dixie in 1929.
A Negro folk tale set in a pre-World War I ghetto area of Charleston, South Carolina known as "Catfish Row," had long fascinated American audiences. However, the film was in production at a time in history when the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrations and boycotts divided Americans. Objections from the NAACP on the grounds that the story contributed to the denigration of African Americans created a legitimate stir.
Once Harry Belafonte rejected the opportunity to play Porgy, a part he would have had to perform on his knees, Sidney Poitier was effectively coerced by Samuel Goldwyn into taking the part in order not to lose the coveted role in The Defiant Ones. Other cast members included Dorothy Dandridge along with several of her Carmen Jones alumnae including Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll and director Otto Preminger. Sammy Davis Jr. also appears in a role originally intended for Cab Calloway.
While critics were respectful of the actors and exceptionally kind in their reviews, Columbia Pictures never recouped its original cost and producer Samuel Goldwyn called it quits after forty-five years in the film business.
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 has offered 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.Independently produced by David Susskind and Hansberry's friend Philip Rose and directed by Daniel Petri (who replaced Lloyd Richards, the black director who had brought the play to Broadway), A Raisin in the Sun 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 problems and concerns of the ghettoized black working class made A Raisin in the Sun not just a sensitive, compelling study but also a landmark film.
LILIES OF THE FIELD
United Artists, 1963
A wildly successful film in which Sidney Poitier cemented his on-screen image as "ebony saint." Lilies of the Field, based on a novel by William E. Barrett, marked the start of a series of similar roles for Poitier in films such as The Slender Thread (1965), A Patch of Blue (1965), and To Sir, with Love (1967) that were adapted from works of literature.
Poitier played Homer Smith, an easy-going ex-GI that meets a group of German nuns who are trying to build a chapel in the Arizona desert. After agreeing to work for them for just one day, Homer stays on, so inspired by the nuns' faith that he takes on extra jobs to help pay for the building materials; and he musters the resources of the neighboring citizens and of a circuit-riding preacher to complete the project. The church, he realizes, is an important symbol to the community and raising it will in turn raise the hopes of the impoverished and oppressed townspeople. The day the church is to be consecrated, however, Homer leaves, knowing that he has already fulfilled the sisters' ambitions and his own.
The film, which opened to almost unanimously favorable reviews, afforded Poitier another chance to play the dependable, noble, self-sacrificing black man (although some viewers saw him more negatively: as an unpaid servant to whites). The role earned Poitier an Academy Award for Best Actor, the first ever won by a black male performer (an achievement that would remain unmatched for almost four decades, until Denzel Washington's win in 2002 for Training Day).
SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG
"Blaxploitation" is a term coined in the early 1970s to refer to black action films aimed at black audiences. Featuring African-American actors in lead roles and often having anti-establishment plots, critics frequently condemned the films as morally bankrupt in their stereotypical and negative portrayal of African Americans as well as their glorification of violence. Not everyone in the black community agreed and many argued that the films provided black audiences with cinematic heroes in a more honest portrayal of urban life unseen in most Hollywood pictures before that time.
Enter Melvin Van Peebles, the first modern-day folk hero of black cinema. As writer, producer, director, soundtrack composer, and star, he lit the fuse of Blaxploitation in 1971 with his independently financed film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Shot on a miniscule budget in little more than two weeks, the film provocatively depicts of a black man fighting the system and winning.
Understandably, this struck a chord with African-American audiences around the country. That the film was "rated X by an all-white jury" helped the film and by the end of 1971, Sweet Sweetback had grossed $10 million, a huge success for the era.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1971
This crossover film along with Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) helped launch the 1970s explosion of the blaxploitation genre.
Director Gordon Parks, Sr., who was the first black director to helm a Hollywood studio film, The Learning Tree (1969), hired Richard Roundtree to play John Shaft, a rugged and successful private gumshoe in this first of three Shaft films. Made at a cost of $1.5 million, Shaft grossed over $12 million domestically and single-handedly saved MGM from financial ruin. The Isaac Hayes Academy Award winning soundtrack, on the charts for well over one year, was a phenomenon all it's own.
Critics both black and white applauded this film. To quote Vincent Canby of the New York TImes, "the first good Saturday night movie I've seen in years." The sequels however were no matches for the original and Roundtree's career never fully recovered from the stereotype that created his fame.
Warner Brothers, 1972
Condemned by the black community as a glorification of violence, sex and drugs, Super Flywas the first and most notorious film by director Gordon Parks Jr. It's actually a typical film noir on a classic theme; the hood who must make one last score before he quits the business.
Parks, son of Shaft (1971) director Gordon Parks Sr., and one of the few blacks to direct in Hollywood, had a real feeling for the Harlem streets, back alleys and the language of its residents. His brand of visual social realism was almost too authentic and partly the root to the film's controversy.
Financially backed by a group of Harlem businessmen, and shot by a mostly black crew, Super Fly was as much a statement against white dominated Hollywood from behind the camera as it was a convincing and seductive depiction of a segment of black ghetto life.
Curtis Mayfield's best-selling soundtrack featuring the hit singles "Freddie's Dead" and "Super Fly", rose to the top of the album charts where it remained for 46 weeks selling well over 2 million copies.
United Artists, 1972
There are a few giants in the world of black action films such as Pam Grier, Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree. However, there is one actor who towers over them all in sheer presence, attitude, and charisma. That man is Fred "The Hammer" Williamson.
A 1960 graduate of Northwestern University in Architectural Engineering, and an outstanding athlete, Willamson went on to play pro football for the San Francisco 49'ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, and Kansas City Chiefs and had the distinction of playing in Super Bowl One.
In 1970, he jumped into acting in small roles (M*A*S*H and Tell Me You Love Me Junie Moon) but his real fame as an action hero came with the explosion of blaxploitation films. The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), Hammer (1972), Black Caesar (1973), Hell Up in Harlem (1974) and others, helped establish the character he would later define; the lone, hip, cigar smoking, rogue waiting to unleash his vengeance. Starting with Boss Nigger (1975), Williamson began writing, directing and/or producing most of the low-budget features in which he starred for his own Chicago based production house Po'Boy Productions.
American International Pictures, 1973
A year before Death Wish hit the screen, writer/director Jack Hill created this violent tale of a citizen touched by crime who takes the law into her own hands. When it was first released, Coffy was criticized by black intellectuals because of its violence and less than positive images (the familiar round of hoods, pushers, and pimps). Nonetheless, this is the movie that made Pam Grier a B-movie star.
Nurse "Coffy" Coffin (Grier) takes revenge on the pushers responsible for her eleven-year old sister's addiction to heroin. Her emancipated bigger than life character and free-spirited attitude toward sex made her a proverbial role model of the 1970s women's lib movement. Ms. Magazine, which put Grier on its cover, saw her as a tough, assertive and non-traditional liberated movie character.
Made for an estimated cost of $500,000 and despite the violence, nudity and social outrage, the film went out to gross over $2,000,000.Roy Ayers, the R&B bandleader, jazz vibraphonist and prophet of acid jazz, provided the soundtrack.
FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY, STING LIKE A BEE
Evergreen Films, 1974
Included among the ranks of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali is perhaps the greatest boxer in history. Arguably the most recognizable man of the 20th century, Ali is the subject of this film by American expatriate photographer and filmmaker William Klein.
Bypassing conventional documentary techniques, Klein chronicles Ali's boxing highlights from the first 1964 Sonny Liston fight to the classic 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Forman in a very loose, natural and semi-chronological collage style. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," was a phrase coined by ring corner-man Drew 'Bundini' Brown that aptly described Ali's remarkable combination of speed and power during his sixty-one fight career.
The charismatic and outspoken Ali retired from the ring in 1981 and in the decades since remains an international celebrity, spokesman for world peace, hero, and icon to the world of sports.
RICHARD PRYOR LIVE IN CONCERT
Special Event Entertainment, 1979
The most groundbreaking and daring comic talent since the heyday of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor was also the most controversial. Like Dick Gregory before him, Pryor explored issues of racial inequity with great insight and depth, tackling taboo topics that mainstream white America would have preferred swept permanently under the rug.
His emancipated style of African-American humor pushed every boundary and secured him legendary status. An actor, writer, and influential stand-up artist, his irreverent albums, including Wanted: Live in Concert(1978), sold in the millions and became the basis for the highly successful film documentary of his stage act: Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.
In the 1980 however, at the height of his popularity, his career began a disastrous turn when he suffered the dire consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, a heart attack, a suicide attempt, and the onset of multiple sclerosis. Pryor all but retired from performing in the 1990s and lived a reclusive life, confined to a wheelchair, until his death in 2005.
BEVERLY HILLS COP
Paramount Pictures, 1984
One of the most popular stars of the 1980s, comedian Eddie Murphy first became known on television's Saturday Night Live.
In his fourth movie and the first in which he has a real starring role, Murphy plays Axel Foley, a Detroit cop roaming through Beverly Hills, California in pursuit of the killers of his best friend. Murphy is at the center of the action rather than a backup support player as he was in 48 Hrs (1982) and Trading Places (1983).
Audiences might think the role of Axel Foley was custom made for Eddie Murphy but actually, producers had originally pegged Sylvester Stallone for the project.
SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT
40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks / Island Pictures, 1985
Once Hollywood's Blaxploitation boom of the 1970s had ended, African-American audiences had little to look forward to other than the occasional feature such asA Soldier's Story (1984), The Color Purple (1985) or one of Eddie Murphy's comedies. The gloom lifted with the release of She's Gotta Have It, an independently produced and directed film from newcomer Spike Lee.
The 29 year-old filmmaker shot his film in his Brooklyn, New York neighborhood in less than two weeks on a budget of $175,000, dirt-cheap by Hollywood standards. His low cash approach of "guerrilla filmmaking" is reminiscent of past independent and groundbreaking African-American directors such as Oscar Micheaux in the 1920s and Melvin Van Peebles in the1970s.
In the film, Lee presents a contemporary black woman who exemplifies the attitudes and concerns of women in the 1980s: independent, assertive, and with an equally realized personal and professional life.
She's Gotta Have It won the coveted Prix de Jeunesse Awardat the Cannes Film Festival and became a smash hit at the box-office. Lee, while maintaining creative control of his work, single-handedly demonstrated to Hollywood that independent black film can make money and that black audiences, as well as white, would support them.
THE COLOR PURPLE
Warner Bros., 1986
The Color Purple is director Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. In elaborate Hollywood style, the film traces the life and difficult times of two black sisters and their families in the rural South and in Africa from the years 1909 to 1947.
Whoopi Goldberg plays Celie a southern African American who is used, brutalized, and rejected while married to a tyrannical violent man who, among other things, hides the replies from her sister to her agonizing letters. As result Celie thinks her sister is dead. Also in the cast is Danny Glover as Celie's husband Albert, Margaret Avery as Shug, her husband's mistress, Oprah Winfrey in her film debut as Sofia, a not-too-distant relative on Albert's side and Akosua Busia as Celie's sister Nettie.
The Color Purple is one of the first films based on a work by a female African-American writer, which is reflected in the telling of the story from the viewpoint of the women. Critics accused the film and the novel of racism and of portraying African-American men as brutal. Walker defended both by saying that they showed the strength and power of women, their struggle to survive and their will to endure.
The film was nominated for an unprecedented eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Goldberg), Best Supporting Actress (Avery and Winfrey), but received none.
TriStar Pictures, 1989
One day, while Kevin Jarre walked on Boston Common, he realized some of the soldiers on a Civil War monument were black. Although many refer to the Civil War as the war to "free the slaves," it never occurred to Jarre that blacks actually fought in the war. The inspiration for Glory came to him as he stood studying the monument.
Until then, Hollywood had long ignored the role of black soldiers in the Civil War and their fight to maintain their own freedom. Films such as Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939) never addressed the black fighting man and merely depicted them as dependent on white soldiers to keep them free.
Glory is a fictionalized Civil War epic starring an ensemble cast including Denzel Washington (who won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role), Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Raymond St Jacques. The screenplay took its stories from the books Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein,One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard and the letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw written to his mother.The film's narrative chronicles the enlistees struggle to prove themselves worthy soldiers and Americans and follows them from the training grounds, where they were denied uniforms, rifles, respect and equal pay, to the battlefields of South Carolina where they became a coordinated fighting unit. The action culminates in the summer of 1863 with one of the bloodiest conflicts of the war, an uphill attack against the Confederate Fort Wagner in Charleston.
BOYZ N THE HOOD
Columbia Pictures, 1991
John Singleton's directorial debut, a powerful 'ghettocentric' tale about a young man coming of age in South Central, Los Angeles, is considered by many to be the commercial feature-film which best represented the success and potential of the black movie boom of the early 1990s. Because of it's compelling true-to-life script, social context, and strong ensemble cast, Boyz N the Hood proved to be an extraordinary African American vision, taking up the racial discourse where director Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing(1989) left off.
Violence marred its opening week theatrical release, just as it had four months earlier for the premiere of New Jack City. Several theaters cancelled showings. Columbia Pictures, however, supported Singleton by offering to pay for security at those theaters that requested it. In the end, the unquestionable importance of the film's message rewarded Singleton with two Academy Award nominations, for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST
Kino International, 1992
Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust is a beautifully photographed and lyrical saga of three generations of women in an African-American family. It takes place in 1902 at Ibo Landing on the Sea Coast Islands of Georgia and South Carolina. The area served as an entry point for ships transporting Africans to the slave markets of Savannah and Charleston, and then sent to work in rice fields. The captives who remained on the Sea Islands, known as Gullah or Geechee, retained much of their African culture.
Daughters of the Dust is a celebration of a family, but it is much more. It celebrates the history and consciousness of the African-American community. Saturated with rich colors, period costumes, African symbolism, and traditional Gullah dialect, the film captures the resonant sounds of ancestral voices. The narrative follows the lives of several family members and the conflict that arises when some decide to leave their home for the prosperity of the mainland.Daughters of the Dust pays tribute to the racial and ethnic identity of Gullahs, but its message is a universal one: While life tears at family ties with a myriad of temptations and hardships, it is important to know yourself and your people.
Written, directed and produced by Dash, the film took more than three years to complete. It was the first feature-length film by a female African-American filmmaker to receive theatrical release in the United States. Daughters of the Dust was awarded for its stunning cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival.
40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks, 1992
Malcolm Little was born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska where his father was a Baptist minister and a follower of Marcus Garvey, the black leader who urged African Americans to return to Africa and establish a black nation. After the Ku Klux Klan threatened his father, the family moved to Michigan. Facing similar intimidation in Michigan, his father was slain by the Klan-like Black Legionaries.
Malcolm spent the next ten years in and out of foster homes and reform schools, where he developed an appetite for destructive habits that eventually landed him in prison for burglary in 1946. While serving his sentence, Malcolm went through a period of self-discovery and avidly read the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam who renounced whites and preached separatism. In his readings, Malcolm remembered his father's respect for Marcus Garvey's beliefs that confirmed for him the power of Muhammad's faith.
When paroled from prison in 1952, he became a loyal disciple of Islam and changed his name to Malcolm X. By 1954, as minister of Nation of Islam's temple in Harlem, he encouraged African Americans to fight for black empowerment. Gaining a large popular following, especially among black youth, he opposed the integration of the civil rights movement and, like Garvey and Muhammad, advocated black separatism. His preaching of self-defense "by any means necessary" put him at odds with Martin Luther King's peaceful protest philosophy during the civil rights movement.
In 1963, he broke away from the Nation of Islam and founded the revolutionary Muslim Mosque, Incorporated. As he widened his horizons and developed an interest in orthodox Islam, his studies of the Koran questioned many of his old assumptions and raised doubts about his own racial attitudes. A pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia provided a revelation and upon his return to the U.S. he drew up plans for a vast new movement that would promote black consciousness. However, he would never live to see his vision become a reality. On Sunday, February 21, 1965, as he addressed his weekly audience at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, three black gunmen assassinated him.
Spike Lee's cinematic tribute to the slain civil rights leader treats Malcolm not as a political rallying point, but as a fully rounded individual, whose life defies reduction to symbolic status. Lee's willingness to present all sides of Malcolm's character makes the film very persuasive as a biography. Denzel Washington, who plays Malcolm X, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
WAITING TO EXHALE
20th Century Fox, 1995
Actor/director Forest Whitaker's adaptation of Terry McMillan's best selling novel is more about gender than race. While Waiting to Exhale celebrates the vibrant voices of middle-class African-American women, it comes close to pinning the blame for all their troubles on black men. In the span of a single year, four friends, Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Lela Rochon, and Loretta Devine, journey through a modern labyrinth of husbands, lovers, children, jobs and makeovers, realizing in the end that friendship is its own reward. A good man may or may not be hard to find, but films about the search will always find an audience.
When released, Waiting to Exhale appealed largely to a black female audience starved for images of themselves on the big screen. It's overwhelming success paved the way for other mature, adult films like Love Jones, Soul Food and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which moved away from the male action-oriented genre that dominated Hollywood during the early1990s.
20th Century Fox, 1997
Until the release of Waiting to Exhale in 1995, Hollywood's tendency for movies aimed at black audiences was to make them fast paced, loud, and violent. Boyz N the Hood (1991), Dead Presidents (1995) or Set it Off (1996) among others had been groundbreaking but failed to define a true mosaic of the African-American experience.
As a result of the success of Waiting to Exhale and Love Jones, another kind, gentle and adult-oriented film like Soul Food had its audience already established. Written and directed by George Tillman Jr. the film draws inspiration from his own upbringing and beloved grandmother.
Soul Food is the story of a Chicago family and the love they share as they continue their tradition of gathering each Sunday for a soul food dinner. It is a celebration of family, recognizing that through good times and bad, the ties of blood provide an unbreakable bond. Because the heart of the movie involves three sisters (Vanessa Williams, Nia Long and Indianapolis native, Vivica Fox), their stories and their marriages, it is easy to compare it to Waiting to Exhale. Both films feature their share of melodrama, and neither has an especially high opinion of the male gender.
Twentieth Century Fox, tapping the trend of audience enthusiasm, followed with How Stella Got Her Groove Back, a film based on another book by author Terry McMillan.
Lions Gate Films, 2001
On Sunday night March 24, 2002, the Academy Award color barrier was broken when two African-American actors, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, made Oscar history by winning Best Actress and Best Actor at the 74th Academy Awards.
Berry, who three years earlier won several awards including an Emmy for her portrayal of Dorothy Dandridge in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, took on the lead role of Leticia Musgrove in Monster's Ball after actress Angela Bassett turned it down because she thought it was demeaning to black women. Berry plays a widow of a death-row inmate whom inadvertently falls in love with a white prison guard unaware that he helped execute her husband in the electric chair.
Becoming the first African American to ever win Best Actress, a stunned Berry openly bawled onstage as she accepted the award, saying, "This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because the door tonight has been opened."
Warner Bros., 2001
"God is Good, God is great... Forty years I've been chasing Sidney. They finally gave it to me and what do they do? They give it to him the same night. I'll always be chasing you Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do. God bless you."
So were the words of Denzell Washington upon accepting the Academy Award for Best Actor for his starring role in Training Day and acknowledging Sidney Poitier who earlier in the ceremony had received an honorary Oscar.
Washington, usually cast as a heroic figure, plays an abrasive and streetwise narcotics cop gone wrong and becoming the criminal he had been charged to root out. While critics believe his Oscar win may have been a belated consolation prize for his role in The Hurricane (1999), Washington became the first African-American actor to have won twice in the annual competition. The first was for Best Supporting Actor in Glory (1989).
Universal Pictures, 2004
Ray Charles was perhaps the most successful soul artist of all time. Born in the segregated South in 1930, and blinded by age six, Charles attended the St. Augustine School where he learned piano, clarinet, alto sax and composition, as well as reading and writing music in Braille. At age 15, after his parents had passed away, he set out on his own to perform in a variety of bands around Florida.
The road was not kind to his struggle and after much hardship and the desire to get out of the South, Charles took his savings and moved to the farthest point from Florida. Seattle, Washington became his professional turning point. Bringing with him a wide range of material and influences (Nat King Cole and Charles Brown) he began to develop his own style soaked in Southern blues and gospel.
While his first recordings were only imitations of his heroes, Charles's music soon became more innovative. It was at Atlantic Records in 1955 when he found his true voice with the R&B hit, "I Got a Woman" the song most frequently singled out as his pivotal performance. With his later release of "What I Say", he cracked the top pop charts and solidified his mainstream success and popularity with both black and white audiences alike.
A critically acclaimed and eclectic hit-maker throughout the rest of his half-century long career, Charles was an American institution. His emotional singing and playing style left an immense lasting impact on his contemporaries as well as Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Pop, Country, R&B and Soul fans worldwide.
His ups and downs are chronicled in the film Ray, a biographical tribute by director Taylor Hackford. Jamie Foxx, former stand up comedian and classically trained pianist, won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the American icon's rise from a tragic childhood to fame and fortune and a life of heroin addiction and womanizing. Foxx also captured Best Actor awards at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.