THE NEW BLACK HOLLYWOOD
Contemporary Black Film
Thankfully over the past twenty years, black film has flourished in Hollywood. The presence of African-American talent is no longer a rare exception. However, to understand Hollywood's improving racial climate in the film business in which Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx are mainstream stars, producers, writers, directors and other behind the scene personnel, one must look to the past.
Ever since the American film industry began in the early 1900s, discrimination was an ever-present factor. Not only were black characters rarely presented on camera, when they were, white actors in blackface portrayed them. For decades, the subject matter presented on screen did much to perpetuate anti-black prejudices. In countless films, African Americans appeared as shuffling, illiterate, and superstitious stereotyped characters of ridicule. Even in the 1930s and 1940s when Hollywood began featuring black stars such as Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, and the Nicholas Brothers, their performances, especially in musicals, were deliberately made dispensable to the plot, so footage could be easily edited out for showings in the bigoted South.
Things slowly changed in the 1950s thanks to actor Sidney Poitier's arrival on the Hollywood scene in No Way Out (1950). His name quickly became synonymous with a solid box-office draw. With his films The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Edge of the City (1957), The Defiant Ones (1957), Porgy and Bess (1959) and Lilies of the Field (1963) (for which he won an Oscar), Poitier pushed Hollywood's boundaries of racial integration in film even further. Into the 1960s, his interracial love stories Patch of Blue (1965), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), coming of age drama To Sir With Love (1967), and racially provocative In the Heat of the Night (1967), continued to redefine the long overdue presence of African-American actors in Hollywood.
Other fine dramatic actors such as Harry Belafonte, Al Freeman Jr., Paul Winfield, Glynn Turman, Brock Peters and Ivan Dixon also started to appear in major starring roles. Black actresses, however, did not fare as well. Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, and Pearl Bailey, in addition to fighting discrimination, suffered the gender bigotry that affected actresses of all races. Dandridge, who appeared in hugely successful films such as Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957), Tamango (1958) and Porgy and Bess (1959) was still not afforded the major player status as her white counterparts Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, or Jayne Mansfield.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new trend emerged in black Hollywood in the form of black action films. Jim Brown and other ex-professional athletes, Fred Williamson, Carl Weathers, Bernie Casey, Ken Norton, and Rosie Grier moved their careers into film. Violent, racially motivated and emphasizing rebellion against authority, the films created a black hero on screen that, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, African-American audiences needed and welcomed. Hollywood recognized their popularity and profitability at the box office and expanded the genre to include black ghetto dramas (Shaft and Super Fly), horror films (Blacula and Blackenstein), kung-fu films (Black Belt Jones and Black Samurai), and other "blaxploitation" films. Actresses also reaped the benefit of Hollywood's new fervor, most notably, the queen of the black action genre, Pam Grier (Coffy and Foxy Brown). Additionally, the decade produced other African-American stars in films of a more sensitive nature and with topics that addressed the real issues surrounding and confronting black communities. James Earl Jones (Claudine and Bingo Long Traveling All Stars), Cicely Tyson (Sounder and The River Niger), Diana Ross (Mahogany, and The Wiz), Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, and Greased Lightning), and Billy Dee Williams (Brian's Song and Scott Joplin), each added to the diverse flavor of a new Hollywood. Independent filmmakers such as William Greaves, St Clair Bourne, Haile Gerima, Julie Dash and Charles Burnette sought to make diverse and realistic films with which blacks could connect and identify with.
By the end of the 1970s, audiences had grown tired of the drugs, pimps, and guns prominent in the black action theme and abandoned the genre entirely. Black moviegoers had little to look for forward to with the exception to occasional black films like A Soldier's Story or The Color Purple. Independently produced black film proliferated in the 1930s and 1940s with "race film" directors such as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, but it was not until 1969 that Hollywood began to present opportunities to black directors. Gordon Parks Sr.'s The Learning Tree, Melvin Van Peebles' Watermelon Man, and Ossie Davis' Cotton Comes to Harlem, ushered in a new dawn. Unfortunately, these opportunities were few and the film industry turned away from the new black Hollywood and refused to focus on the works of the independent directors and film companies. Instead, it chose to spotlight Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, two existing superstars with bankable box-office draw cast as sidekicks to white co-stars. Their films Stir Crazy, 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places and Superman III, offered themes of interracial male-bonding, but failed to uncover the tensions and conflicts of a black man in pursuit of goals or aspirations.
All aspiring African-American directors in the 1980s would look to Spike Lee as role model. Lee's early independently released film She's Gotta Have It signaled a fresh contemporary style of filmmaking, and one with a message. Again, much as Van Peebles had done in the early 1970s with his independent film Sweet Sweetback, Lee had proven that black audiences were waiting for movies they could relate to and identify with. In the hands of Lee, the black independent movement of the 1980s emerged, touching the nerve of the black audience and finding huge commercial viability. Hollywood, of course, took notice.
This exhibit, The New Black Hollywood, chronicles the past twenty years of black film in America. Changes for African Americans in the current Hollywood system, in the form of more diverse stories, more black filmmakers, writers, producers and others behind the scenes, have certainly progressed from the past but integration in show business into the twenty-first century is far from complete. Achievements to date mark neither an end, nor a middle but rather a beginning.
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.
BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET
Director John Sayles presents a film about race and class in America, uniquely disguised through the metaphorical blending of a stock satirical premise (the world through the eyes of an alien) with a runaway slave narrative.The Brother (Joe Morton) is an escaped slave from an unnamed planet who crash lands his space capsule off New York's Ellis Island. Dressed in ragged clothing, unable to speak and taken for a homeless black man, The Brother is treated with reactions ranging from pity to contempt by the community. He ends up in a local Harlem bar where the regular patrons find him very odd. The film proceeds as a series of vignettes. In one sequence on the subway, a child offers to do a magic trick for The Brother and make the white riders disappear. As the train pulls into the 96th Street Station, the whites file out and mysteriously replaced by black passengers headed uptown. The film is a remarkable image of the reality of racial segregation in urban America.
A SOLDIER'S STORY
Columbia Pictures, 1984
Hollywood producer/director Norman Jewison brought Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize winning drama A Soldier's Play to the screen. The film version is performed largely by cast members of the Negro Ensemble Company, the highly respected premier American black theater troupe, who had first staged the play in 1981.
Re-titled A Soldier's Story, the film takes place in 1944 at an army base deep in Louisiana, where the sergeant of an all-black platoon, Sergeant Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar), is shot to death. Captain Davenport (Howard Rollin's Jr.), a military attorney, is sent by Washington to investigate. He is the first black commissioned officer anyone at the segregated base has ever seen and his appearance meets with resentment among the whites and pride among the blacks.
Davenport, aware of the racial tensions at Fort Neal and in the nearby town, questions the soldiers who knew the slain sergeant. Through flashbacks evoked during interrogations, the complex character of the murder victim emerges. Davenport eventually solves the case, but not before revealing the hidden insecurities and fears that breed racial hatred among suspects, black and white.
The ensemble cast also includes Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Robert Townsend, Art Evans, David Harris, Larry Riley and William Allen Young.
Award winning director Jewison has had a longtime interest in racial issues. In 1967, he directed In the Heat of the Night, with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Picture. More recently, his film The Hurricane (1999), also starring Denzel Washington, garnered a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
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 as A 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 Award at 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., 1985
Director Steven Spielberg adapted The Color Purple from 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 Africa and the rural American South from 1909 to 1947.
The Color Purple was one of the first films to be based on a work by a female African-American writer, and recounts its saga from a female viewpoint. However, both novel and film were criticized for characterizing African-American men as extremely brutal. Walker defended her work, saying this brutality highlighted the strength of black women in their struggle to survive.
Comedian Whoopi Goldberg plays against type as Celie, a woman married to Albert, a tyrannical and violent man. To gain comfort from his mental and physical torture, Celie writes agonizing letters to her sister. However, Albert intercepts the correspondence so that no replies come. As a result, Celie thinks her sister is dead. However, she unexpectedly finds comfort and physical intimacy in the arms of another woman.
The cast includes Danny Glover as Albert, and Akosua Busia as Celie's sister Nettie, Margaret Avery as Shug and Oprah Winfrey in her film debut as Sofia. 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.
Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1987
When Spike Lee's independently produced film, She's Gotta Have It, proved successful at the box-office a year earlier, stand-up comedian Robert Townsend took it upon himself to write, produce, direct and star in his own film Hollywood Shuffle.
Townsend had previously acted in feature films including Streets of Fire (1983), A Soldier's Story (1984), and Ratboy (1986), but the elusive search for meaningful roles left him disillusioned. Using a $100,000 cash advance from multiple credit cards, he teamed up with co-writer Keenan Ivory Wayans to create a satirical story through a series of skits, parodies, spoofs, taking jabs at the humiliating realities of a black actor in white-dominated Hollywood.Townsend plays Bobby Taylor, a struggling young performer who daydreams of stardom as he works part-time at the local "Winky Dinky Dog" hot dog stand. Trying out for his first movie role as a hoodlum named Jivetime Jimmy, Bobby comes to realize that all the parts available to him are stereotyped and to take the role would be selling out his integrity. Hollywood Shuffle articulates a common consensus about Hollywood and attacks its perpetual history of relegating (even those classically trained) black actors to demeaning roles. Two years after the release of the film, the Academy Awards chose to snub Spike Lee's inflammatory Do the Right Thing in favor of Driving Miss Daisy, about a faithful black servant and his white master.
The semi autobiographical film received critical and audience acclaim and firmly established Townsend as a groundbreaking filmmaker.
COMING TO AMERICA
Paramount Pictures, 1988
In a departure from his formula wise-guy character that early 1980's audiences were so accustomed to, Eddie Murphy stars as twenty-one year old Prince Akeem, sole heir to the rich, fictional, African kingdom of Zamunda. Pampered his entire life, and hoping to escape a pre-arranged royal wedding, Akeem and his man-servant (Arsenio Hall) head to New York, incognito, to find a bride who loves him for who he is and not what he has. Coming to America is a modern romantic fairytale.
When the film was released, Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald thought that the story looked awfully similar to a treatment he had written in 1983 (and optioned to Paramount Pictures). He sued, claiming the film was drawn directly from his story. In 1992, the court awarded Buchwald, and his associates, $825,000 for their contribution to Murphy's box-office hit.
Columbia Pictures, 1988
Director Spike Lee's second feature film came in part from his own experiences as an undergraduate at Atlanta's prestigious Morehouse College. School Daze is a musical comedy about all-black college life from a black male perspective. It attempts to mix a social critique of many topics that include biases among light and dark-skinned blacks, fraternity pledging and membership, antiapartheid, conflicts between college students and local residents, and more.
After the success of his first feature film, She's Gotta Have It, the major studios pursued Lee to produce his next effort. School Daze became his first film in Hollywood. Though he faced challenges with his distributor, Columbia Pictures, who refused to spend appropriate money on advertising, his production team assembled for the film became the invaluable backbone of his future work. They included director of photography Ernest Dickerson, costume designer Ruth Carter, casting director Robi Reed, production designer Wynn Thomas, and film editor Barry Alexander Brown.
DO THE RIGHT THING
40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks, 1989
Director Spike Lee's provocative third feature film, and landmark of American cinema, is set on the hottest day of the summer in the predominantly African-American Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. Do the Right Thing details 24 hours in the lives of the neighborhood residents and the polarities and racial strain that exists with the staff, management and clientele of Sal's Famous Pizzeria, a local Italian landmark. Ultimately, before a new day comes, a young man is dead, a pizzeria burned to the ground and the racial divide that has grown wider, suggesting there may never be any resolution to the problems the movie identifies.
Featuring a stellar ensemble cast, including Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Samuel Jackson, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, John Turturro and Lee himself, the film's powerful portrait of urban racial tensions sparked much controversy. While earning popular and critical praise as the most insightful view of race relations on film, whites and blacks condemned it for being racist and dangerous hype.
Lee, without compromising his position as an aggressive outspoken advocate of civil rights, consistently touches the nerve of the American public. His brand of storytelling, traditionally overlooked by Hollywood, has opened the door for new generations of African-American filmmakers.
TriStar Pictures, 1989
One day, while Glory author 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 him that blacks actually fought in the war. The inspiration for the film 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.
Marking comedian Eddie Muphy's directorial debut, Harlem Nights is a satirical gangster comedy set in the nostalgic white satin and diamonds style of 1930's Harlem. The film brings together three generations of renowned comic stars, Redd Foxx in his last movie role, Richard Pryor before his problems with Multiple Sclerosis, and Murphy, in between his Beverly Hills Cop sequels.
Together, nightclub owner, Sugar Ray (Pryor) and his adopted son, Quick (Murphy) deal with the ins and outs of running Harlem's largest speakeasy while under the watchful eye of corrupt cops and local Mafia gangsters. Amongst their employees are Bennie (Foxx) an almost blind croupier running the dice table and Vera (Della Reese) a foul-mouthed Madam who handles the prostitution interests.
Threatened by the mobsters who want a piece of their action, Sugar Ray and Quick devise an elaborate scam, in a variation of The Sting (1973), utilizing a championship heavyweight fight to out-con the Mafia. Panned by critics, the film did, however, receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design.
TriStar Pictures, 1989
In a tribute to the nostalgic foot-stomping and toe-tapping musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, Tap stars Gregory Hines as Max Washington, the son of a legendary hoofer. Facing release from prison for burglary, Max stands at the crossroads between a perpetual life of crime and the pursuit of his late father's legacy.Written and directed by Nick Castle Jr., son of the noted golden-age Hollywood choreographer, the film features legendary tap dance veterans Harold Nicholas, Sandman Sims, Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde, Pat Rico, Arthur Duncan. Sammy Davis, in his last screen appearance, also trades kicks and cuts the rug with the old-timers.
Hines, perhaps the greatest tap dancer of his generation, transcended the stage with successful film and television roles. A Broadway Tony Award winner in 1992 for his portrayal of Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly's Last Jam, he was first propelled to stardom with his brother Maurice Jr., dancing together in the 1978 musical revue Eubie. In 2003, Hines died of cancer at the age of 57.
New Line Cinema, 1990
Rap music has never been more successfully integrated into a movie than it is in House Party, the first feature for writer-director Reginald and producer Warrington Hudlin. The brothers from East St Louis base it on a shorter film Reginald made while a student at Harvard. The golden age of Hollywood musicals is long gone, and only occasionally, in movies like Saturday Night Fever (1977) or Dirty Dancing (1987) do films appear where the dramatic developments co-exist with the soundtrack music. In the case of House Party, the musical is a canvas used by Hudlin to illustrate African-American teenagers with a freshness and originality that is rare in modern movies.
Usually portrayed as either negative or threatening, Hudlin's teenagers are neither. They are normal, average kids with curfews, who do not drink or do drugs and have a universal desire to go to a party and dance. The ensemble cast includes legendary comedian Robin Harris (in his last role), a not-yet-famous Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell, and hip hop artists Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin, better known as Kid 'n' Play. The film was so original and appealing that it established a formula to spurn three sequels.
TO SLEEP WITH ANGER
Samuel Goldwyn, 1990
In the early 1990s, independent black filmmakers began to reshape the awareness of their audiences with a diverse range of African-American subjects and issues. University-trained directors such as Charles Burnette, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima and others, each contributed to creating a new aesthetic on the screen that redefined the black point of view. Their preference for low budget, independent films, while lacking visibility by mainstream audiences, distinguishes them as artists. Director Burnette won a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1988 that partially allowed him to contribute to his first commercial feature To Sleep With Anger.
The film is a poetic and dramatic portrait of a contemporary black urban life steeped in the blues, spirituals and folkways of their Southern roots. Danny Glover stars as an old mysterious friend from the Deep South who conjures conflicting values and divided loyalties among multi-generations of a South Central, Los Angeles family.
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.
20th Century Fox, 1991
For a brief time in the early 1960s, the music industry grew because of the talent and not the marketing. The Dells, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and other groups of that era provided the inspiration for The Five Heartbeats , a film tracing the meteoric rise and fall of a fictional popular African-American vocal group.
Director, writer, and star Robert Townsend, and co-writer Keenan Ivory Wayans, frame their film in the post-Heartbeat present using nostalgic flashbacks to the early days when the group first formed. Success, however, had its price and in the film's more serious moments, drug addiction, infidelity, racism, and death all come to call on the Heartbeats before their career ends.
Though Townsend has been a stand-up comedian and actor in films since 1975, he made his mark in the public consciousness with his first directorial effort Hollywood Shuffle in 1987, a spoof on African Americans in the film industry.
Universal Pictures, 1991
Part Romeo and Juliet and part Guess Who's Coming to Dinner , director Spike Lee's Jungle Fever continues the fascination that filmmakers have with love and the cultural barriers it crosses. Lee examines the mystique of "Jungle Fever" (interracial relationships) and its destructive ripple effect on families and friends. Wesley Snipes stars as Flipper Purify, an affluent African-American architect living in Harlem's elite Striver's Row with his wife Drew (Lonette McKee) and young daughter. He strays from his idyllic path and compromises his relationship by having an affair with Angie (Annabella Sciorra), his Italian-American secretary who lives in the working class neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn with her abusive father and two grown brothers. The fallout from their liaison is devastating. Thrown out of their homes, the outcast couple move in together faced with the reality of a mixed race relationship.
Director Lee shows the viewer how race and class conflict but is more interested in examining the effect this interracial affair has on those people who surround the couple. It is through those friends and family that he probes the issues without resolving the conflicts, forcing the viewer to think about solutions.
NEW JACK CITY
Warner Brothers, 1991
Buoyed by director Spike Lee's successful quartet of films in the 1980s, studios and investors began to embrace young male African-American filmmakers. New Jack City, Mario Van Peebles' feature film directorial debut, attracted much publicity upon release due to rioting at theatres screening the film. This gave the movie a provocative aura that the publicists could never have created. The public, who had not seen the hip-hop "gangsta rap" saga, worried that it was pro-drug and encouraged gang warfare. Ironically, New Jack City has an anti-drug message.
No stranger to controversy, Van Peebles' father Melvin was one of the first African American directors to emerge in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His socially conscious and satirical films included The Story of a Three Day Pass (1968), The Watermelon Man (1970), and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971).
RAGE IN HARLEM
Based on a novel by Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem is set in the bustling community of Harlem in 1956. The film, which is rich in period detail, centers on Imabelle, a black femme fatale, played by Robin Givens in her first motion picture. The widely celebrated television director Bill Duke also debuts with his first feature film directing effort, a gangster tale with a sweet love story hidden underneath.
Imabelle flees Mississippi with a trunk full of gold stolen from her vicious boyfriend Slim (Badja Djola) and heads for Harlem where she hopes to have a gangster kingpin named Easy Money (Danny Glover) trade it for currency.
Looking for a place to hide out, Imabelle latches on to Jackson (Forest Whitaker) a shy churchgoing mortician's accountant who she takes as an easy mark when he offers her shelter. As she plans her next move, Jackson's innocence intrigues her and a peculiar relationship develops between the two unlikely lovers. When Slim catches up to Imabelle and takes her away, Jackson calls in his street-wise brother Goldy (Gregory Hines) to help in the rescue.
Chester A. Himes (1909-84) is the author of a series of popular crime novels that portray the black ghetto subculture, with its violence, loose women, and crime. A Rage in Harlem is the fourth to make it to the big screen, following the films If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1968), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972).
Paramount Pictures, 1992
The late comedian Robin Harris paved the way for a generation of African American comedians, including Bernie Mac and Martin Lawrence.
Producers Reginald and Warrington Hudlin initially planned Bebe's Kids as a live-action film, a follow-up to Harris' screen success in the Hudlins' House Party, and Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues and Do the Right Thing. However, Harris' sudden death in 1990 at the age of 35, during the early development phases of the film, changed the nature of the project. The result is an animated musical cartoon inspired by the characters developed by Harris in his stand-up comedy routines.
The film stars an animated Harris who, on a first date, invites Jamika, and her young son Leon, to the popular amusement park Fun World. When Robin arrives to pick them up, he finds Jamika babysitting her friend Bebe's three kids, all rowdy brats with a penchant for mischief and destruction. They torture Robin and the well-mannered Leon and, before the afternoon is over, reduce the entire grounds of Fun World to rubble.
Bebe's Kids was the first full-length animated film by and about African Americans.
40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, 1992
Featuring a riveting performance by Denzel Washington, Spike Lee's film presents a version of Malcolm X's life that is largely faithful to the autobiographical narrative written down by Alex Haley and published in 1965. Although Lee's interests lie primarily with Malcolm's political and intellectual development and contributions to the struggle for black empowerment, the religious aspects of Malcolm X's personal journey are also important to the film's story.
The first section of Lee's epic film covers the early years of Malcolm Little's life and the second follows him into prison where he learns the theology and political philosophy of the Nation of Islam. Convinced of the truth of the Nation of Islam's religious teachings and of the political value of its philosophy of black empowerment through racial separatism, Malcolm Little renounces his slave name and becomes a devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.). The film's portrayal of Malcolm's conversion and rise to prominence within the Nation of Islam is compelling, as is Lee's rendering of the spiritual transformation that results from Malcolm's disaffection from Elijah Muhammad and from his pilgrimage to Mecca.
The release of Malcolm X contributed greatly to the revival of interest in Malcolm as a political figure, and Lee's attempts to connect Malcolm's legacy to more recent events like the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police and to international struggles for human rights are thought provoking.
Columbia Pictures, 1993
In his second film, Poetic Justice, Director John Singleton returns to South Central, Los Angeles, the same setting of his critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated debut film Boyz N the Hood.
Stepping away from the gangs, guns, and drugs that permeated his first film, Singleton presents a portrait of a young woman who finds herself through poetry and eventually gains true love. In her film debut, recording superstar Janet Jackson appears as Justice, a feisty but sensitive woman fighting to improve her life by working as a hairdresser and writing poetry (actually the work of famed author Maya Angelou.) On a road trip north with friends, she is unexpectedly thrown together with Lucky (Tupac Shakur), a postal worker and aspiring rap performer struggling to resist the temptation of an easier life on the street, instead of a steady job.
A relevant and moving romance, Poetic Justice sets the story of Justice and Lucky against a backdrop of urban despair and loneliness as they struggle to find love, hope and, ultimately, personal transformation.
Gramercy Pictures, 1993
Writer, director, and star Mario Van Peebles is known among audiences for his TV series, Sonny Spoon, and for his notorious debut film New Jack City (1991). In Posse, an action-packed western, he attempts to correct historical misconceptions about black cowboys on the frontier during the Spanish-American War. Presented through a flashback drawn from the memories of an old man (Woody Strode), the story concerns an Old West outlaw bent on revenge (Van Peebles). Strode was a veteran actor who dominated dozens of Hollywood Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s, most notably John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge in 1960.
To attract younger audiences, Van Peebles included in the cast rap stars Big Daddy Kane and Tone Loc, along with seasoned favorites like Robert Hooks, Isaac Hayes, Nipsey Russell, Pam Grier, Blair Underwood, and Aaron Neville (who also provided some of the film score). Van Peebles wrote and directed a sequel Los Locos in 1997.
New Line Cinema, 1994
A documentary filmed by Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, who spent five years, 250 hours of footage, and an estimated $750,000 to film the aspirations of two African-American14-year-old basketball prospects from the inner city schoolyards of Chicago.
Hoop Dreams follows the parallel lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, from eighth grade through high school, as they go through trials and triumphs, successes and setbacks both on and off the court. More than just a sports film, it is as much about human relations and racial discrimination as it is about basketball.
The film won awards from the Sundance film festival, The Directors Guild of America, The New York Film Critics Circle, and an Academy Award for best editing.
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS
TriStar Pictures, 1995
"Nervous?... Here I was in the middle of a white neighborhood with a white woman next to me. I wasn't nervous, I was stupid." Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and other "noir" writers, known for their period detective stories, typically introduce their main character narrating the proceedings. In Devil in a Blue Dress, writer/director Carl Franklin, in a tribute to the genre, bases his film on Walter Mosley's acclaimed debut novel set in the 1940s.
Denzel Washington, as Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, is the narrator; an out-of-work African American and World War II veteran turned detective, in the racially charged atmosphere of Central Avenue, Los Angeles' thriving post-war black neighborhood. Rawlins finds himself entangled in a complex web of corruption, deceit and murder when hired to locate a politician's missing sweetheart, a femme fatale played by Jennifer Beales. Don Cheadle co-stars as Rawlins' trigger-happy friend, Mouse.
Author Mosley, penned a cycle of four Easy Rawlins detective novels. In 1990, his series captured the attention of then presidential candidate Bill Clinton, whose endorsement boosted Mosley's popularity as mystery writer.
New Line Cinema, 1995
Rap artist Ice Cube made a successful transition from music to film in 1991 with his acclaimed screen debut in John Singleton's urban tragedy, Boyz N the Hood. After follow up roles in Trespass (1992) and Singleton's Higher Learning (1995) he decided to take his movie career into his own hands by co-writing the screenplay and co-executive producing his next film, Friday.
Cube and box-office superstar Chris Tucker appear as Craig and Smokey, two homeboys in the 'hood of South Central, Los Angeles, with too much time on their hands and too much mischief in their hearts. Their misadventures take place on one very long Friday, when Craig (Cube) loses his job, escapes a girlfriend long enough to capture a new woman's heart, bails Smokey (Tucker) out of trouble, and survives a climatic confrontation with the neighborhood bully.
Friday became a cult success and so profitable in the video market that it spawned a sequel, Next Friday, and its third installment, Friday After Next.
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.
GET ON THE BUS
40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks, 1996
Spike Lee's poignant and soul searching tale of twenty men's trip from South Central, Los Angeles to the Million Man March in Washington D.C. in 1995. Shot in 16mm film and video, and financed exclusively by fifteen wealthy, influential African-American men, it was Lee's smallest budget feature since his early days as an independent director. Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Robert Guillaume, basketball star Charles Smith, and attorney Johnnie Cochran, Jr., each contributed $100,000 or more to the overall $2.4 million film budget.
In the style of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, each traveler has his own story to tell. The characters, acted by an ensemble cast, are as varied as the black community itself and range from young to old, light-skinned to dark, heterosexual to homosexual, cop to criminal, and Muslim to Christian. Although it is discussed, the film is not about the Million Man March, but is rather about the importance of African-American unity and economic empowerment.
As might be expected from director Lee, conversations are up-front with no punches pulled in the discussion of such topics as the black community's use of the word nigger to the O.J. Simpson murder case. By the end of the trip, the diverse group has talked through their experiences and their differences.
ONCE UPON A TIME...WHEN WE WERE COLORED
Republic Pictures, 1996
It is said that when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the first book he requested was The New York Times bestseller Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored written by Clifton L. Taulbert. It is an autobiographical chronicle of the author's coming-of-age in the 1940s and 1950s at a time when the Ku Klux Klan terrorized the streets and "White's Only" were among the first words learned by African-American children.
Taulbert was encouraged by the love and kinship of the tightly knit community to overcome the bigotry and intolerance of the South, allowing him to embark on an extraordinary journey and to celebrate life to the fullest.
In his directorial debut, actor Tim Reid (television's WKRP Cincinnati and Frank's Place) re-creates on the big screen, a fictionalized drama of Taulbert's memoirs. It follows the life a child growing up in Colored Town, the black companion community to Glen Allan, Mississippi in the years from 1946 to 1962 as hard-line segregation gradually fell to the assault of the civil rights movement. The evil of racism is clearly portrayed, but the film is more about the wisdom and the sacrifices of the extended family who love, nourish and sustain him than it is about the injustice of segregation.
THE PREACHER'S WIFE
Touchstone/Samuel Goldwyn, 1996
Award winning diva Whitney Houston stars as Julia Biggs, the gospel singing wife of Baptist Reverend Henry Biggs, played by Courtney B. Vance. Confronted by his financially troubled church and social problems in the community that seems beyond his ability to change, Henry drives himself relentlessly to the point of inadvertently neglecting his wife and young son. It is the holiday season and the Biggs family is in search of a miracle. Henry prays for divine help from above and gets it in the form of Dudley, a dapper grey-suited angel, played by Denzel Washington, sent to Earth to the rescue. Throughout the course of the film, Dudley passes himself off as the preacher's assistant and no one believes he is an angel except Henry and his little boy. In classic Hollywood form, all ends well in the Biggs household on Christmas Day.
The Preacher's Wife, which also features Gregory Hines, Loretta Devine, Jenifer Lewis, and musician Lionel Richie, takes its plot from The Bishop's Wife (1947), the post-war comedy with David Niven, Loretta Young and Cary Grant as the angel.
Trimark Pictures, 1997
After a string of supporting roles in films such as School Daze (1988), Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Five Heartbeats (1991), Kasi Lemmons makes her screenwriter-director debut with Eve's Bayou. Using a Gothic tale of guilt, consequences and voodoo, Lemmons introduces the rarest of motion picture premises: an affluent black family in the Tennessee Williams countryside of the Louisiana bayou.
"Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old." From those engaging opening words, spoken in voice-over narration by Eve Baptiste, the film recalls her childhood in haunting flashbacks to the tragic summer of 1962 and the events that led up to that dreadful moment.
Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield and Diahann Carroll star in this haunting and luminous tale, which was partly, inspired by Lemmons' own childhood memories from time spent with relatives in Alabama. Eve's Bayou won a slew of awards, including The National Board of Review Award, The Acapulco Black Film Festival Award, and The Broadcast Film Critics Association Award.
New Line Cinema, 1997
Love Jones is a romantic comedy that breaks away from the stereotypical portrayal of 1990s black-cast films. No drugs, no gangs, no weapons and the only wound is a broken heart. The film presents a college educated, stylish and cultured ensemble cast whose heroes are Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Gordon Parks, Langston Hughes and Romare Bearden, a signature for a new bohemia.
Larenz Tate stars as the smooth-spoken womanizer Darius Lovehall, a novelist-poet who romances Nina Moseley, an aspiring photographer played by Nia Long.
Other supporting cast members include Isaiah Washington, Lisa Nicole Carson, Bill Bellamy and Bernadette Clarke. Together, they spend most of their free time in a cool smoke-filled cafe for jazz enthusiasts and stand-up poets rambling about what makes love real, what makes love work and what happens when love goes wrong.
Other films such as Waiting to Exhale, Soul Food, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, signaled a conscious effort to present diversity with more adult appeal than the youth or "hood" films earlier in the decade. African-American audiences needed to see how the other half were living and welcomed this emerging genre at the box office. Hollywood was more than enthused.
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.
Touchstone Pictures, 1998
Beloved is a greatly toned-down and much-altered film adaptation of Toni Morrison's 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning fifth novel. Set in 1873, it is the story of a runaway ex-slave Sethe, haunted by her personal actions and memories of life under slavery and confronted by its present day legacies.
Oprah Winfrey stars as Sethe, living free in the Ohio of the 1870s with her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) and Paul D (Danny Glover), another former slave from the Kentucky plantation they fled. The arrival of a mysterious visitor who calls herself Beloved (Thandie Newton) forces Sethe to acknowledge the traumas of her past.
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 themes.
HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK
20th Century Fox, 1998
If the problem in Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale was how to find a good man, the problem in How Stella Got Her Groove Back (based on McMillan's second novel) is what to do with him once he is found.
Depressed by the serious illness of her close friend, Stella Payne (Angela Bassett), a forty-two-year-old woman who has everything that money can buy, ships her son off for a two-week stay with his father and hops a plane for Jamaica. There, she begins a passionate affair with Winston (Taye Diggs), a much younger man. After she returns home, she takes another risk and invites him to live with her. Despite some initial problems of adjustment, by the time Winston proposes, Stella is ready to accept.
The film, based on McMillan's own famous May/December romance that began on holiday in Jamaica and culminated in marriage (and, most recently, in an infamous, scandal-ridden divorce), the film was a pleasant but undemanding story that drew on all of the conventions of popular romance.
THE BEST MAN
Universal Pictures, 1999
Produced by Spike Lee, and directed by cousin, Malcolm D. Lee, The Best Man is an ensemble comedy about friendship and the ties that bind.
The Best Man is Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs), a young and upcoming author who heads to New York to spend a weekend with some college friends reuniting for the wedding of Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Mia (Monica Calhoun). Unfortunately, Harper's circle of friends have obtained an advance copy of his book Unfnished Business, a thinly disguised account of their college years, and discover unflattering similarities between its characters and their own lives. Emotional ups and downs test their friendships when the revelations of the book threaten to derail the reunion and the wedding. Ultimately, however, their relationships grow and strengthen.
The film received nine nominations at the 31st annual NAACP Image Awards.
Universal Pictures, 1999
The true-life story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, an up-and-coming boxer who is framed for a murder he didn't commit. Carter, played by Denzel Washington, spent the next two decades fighting to prove his innocence and overturn the wrongful conviction. During his stay in prison, his plight drew the attention of celebrities such as Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan, whose tribute song resonates throughout the film. Despite this support, Carter remained imprisoned.
Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a 13-year-old boy from Brooklyn inspired by Carter's autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, took up the cause to free his jailed mentor and hero. With the help of Martin's adopted guardians, they pushed the Federal District Court of New Jersey to reinvestigate the case. After several years, the court overturned Carter's conviction and in 1985 released him from prison.
For his role, Washington received a Golden Globe Award and a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor.
40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 2000
Early Hollywood portrayals of African Americans in stereotypical roles are the source of anger and embarrassment decades after those images disappeared from the screen. Director Spike Lee's provocative Bamboozled revisits those images.
A satire of a 21st-century minstrel show, the movie parodies blacks on television and film today, and questions just how much progress Hollywood has made. The film stars Damon Wayans, as Harvard educated Pierre Delecroix, who is the sole black writer for a struggling television network running clownish urban sitcoms. Under fire from his white, ghetto-wannabe boss to invent a hit show that will appeal to black viewers, Delecroix vengefully creates a contemporary blackface minstrel show that, in the spirit of The Producers, becomes a sensational smash and ratings winner.
The title of the film refers to a speech in which civil rights activist Malcolm X states, in reference to African Americans, "You've been hoodwinked. You've been had. You've been took. You've been led astray, led amok. You've been bamboozled."
Lee has become adept at stirring up controversy with films about race, including School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), and Malcolm X (1992).
LOVE & BASKETBALL
New Line Cinema, 2000
Gina Prince-Bythewood, Emmy-winning TV writer for A Different World and Felicity writes and directs her feature film debut about two young athletes from an upper middle-class African-American neighborhood of Los Angeles. Love & Basketball is set against the rivalry and mutual attraction of Monica (Sanaa Lathan), and her neighbor, Quincy (Omar Epps). Basketball, however, is only a vehicle for this love story.
An exceptional athlete as a youth, Bythewood is well aware of the stereotype of the black athlete. Like her talented heroine, sports were Bythewood's life.
"One of the things I wanted to attack was the stigma attached to female athletes, that you can't be strong AND feminine," she said. The film divides into four quarters, as in a basketball game, and tracks Monica's life from a talented 12-year-old to an adult who achieves her life-long dream of playing professionally. Lathan, who had never picked up a basketball before, endured a five-month training session just to be able to do lay-ups and shoot like a pro.
Love & Basketball premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, where it won The Humanitas Prize. Other awards in several categories include The Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, The BET Award, The Black Reel Award, and The NAACP Image Award.
Urbanworld Films, 2000
Based on a play of the same name by Kosmond Russell, The Visit stars Hill Harper as Alex Walters, a young African American man who tries to come to terms with his past after being sentenced to 25 years in prison for rape. With the onset of AIDS, Alex finds himself looking for some sense of truth and reconciliation with the people in his life. He must face and overcome his personal issues, embodied in his estranged father (Billy Dee Williams), dignified mother (Marla Gibbs), older successful brother (Obba Babatunde), and childhood crush Felicia (Rae Dawn Chong). He confronts each of these personified demons during his prison visits with them.
Columbia Pictures, 2001
Muhammad Ali, the most recognizable man of the 20th century, is one of those rare people to become immortal in his own lifetime. He is included among the ranks of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis and is perhaps the greatest boxer in history. Cassius Clay was born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, at a time when being black and poor meant almost no prospects for economic advancement. However, the young Clay became lucky at age twelve when a local cop gave him boxing lessons so he could protect his bicycle from bullies. By age eighteen he won six Kentucky Golden Glove competitions and a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics.
Ali stars Will Smith as the loud-mouthed kid who boldly announces early and often in his career that he is "the greatest," and proceeds to back up that claim in the ring. Smith trained nearly a year, bulking up 35 pounds in the transformation process.
The film spans the pivotal decade of Ali's life beginning in 1964, as Cassius Clay, when he won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, and ending in 1974, as Muhammad Ali, when he reclaimed his title from George Foreman in the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire. Within those years, the film recounts Ali's conversion to Islam, his refusal to serve in the Army (stripping him of his title), and the endless court battle he waged to be able to win that title back.
More than any other athlete, Ali was unique in that his life was not just about boxing, but about a rebellious and charismatic black man who dared to triumph in American society without compromise.
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 an 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).
20th Century Fox, 2002
Antwone Fisher, based on Fisher's autobiography, is the story of a troubled young sailor, Antwone "Fish" Fisher. After his explosive temper threatens to get him kicked out of the Navy, he is ordered to see Dr. Jerome Davenport, a military psychologist.
At first, Fisher refuses to open up to the psychologist; but eventually he breaks down and reveals his abusive and turbulent childhood. With the support of Dr. Davenport, who helps him come to grips with the serious issues of violence in his life, and becomes the father that he never knew, and his loyal girlfriend Cheryl, Fisher embarks on a painful search to find the family that abandoned him as a baby. After reuniting with them, he finds the courage to stop fighting and start loving, and is able to make a dramatic turn in his own life.
The film marked the directorial debut of Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, who also starred as the psychologist, and the film debuts of Derek Luke, who played the title role, and Joy Bryant, the model-turned-actress who appeared as Cheryl. Fisher himself was credited with writing the film's screenplay. Today, he is a Hollywood writer and producer and a best-selling author.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 2002
A sentimental fable of community, history and the perseverance of good in the face of urban decay, Barbershop is an ensemble comedy about a long-standing neighborhood fixture on the south side of Chicago.
The plot follows Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube), who inherits the struggling business from his late father and views the shop as nothing more than a burden and waste of his time. The barbershop, staffed by an eclectic group of outspoken, funny and confrontational barbers, including Cedric the Entertainer and Sean Patrick Thomas, is a cornerstone of the neighborhood, a diverse hub where people congregate, argue and occasionally even get a trim.
With bills to pay, baby on the way, and dreams of owning a recording studio, Clavin struggles with the notion of selling the shop to the local loan shark. Slowly though, he begins to see his father's vision and comes to appreciate the human value of what it provides.
20th Century Fox, 2002
The world of show-style marching bands is a way of life at football halftimes every fall. Drum Line focuses on the band members and dancers from historically black colleges and universities whose elaborately choreographed seven-minute extravaganzas feature hundreds of costumed performers. Produced by Grammy-winning producer-songwriter Dallas Austin based the coming-of-age film on his experiences as a high school drummer.
Television's Nickelodeon star Nick Cannon plays Devon Miles, a freshman from Harlem on a music scholarship and a gifted hip-hop snare drummer, determined to make the top-notch drum line at fictional Atlanta A & T University. He finds his scholarship and talent mean little without the teamwork of his marching band peers.
Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones), an old-school-style bandleader who runs his band like a tough drill sergeant, whips Devon and the rest of his 170-member band into shape. As they prepare to take part in the annual Big Southern Classic, the Super Bowl of marching band competitions, he teaches the valuable life lessons of responsibility, courage and the essence of teamwork.
Lions Gate Films, 2002
Civil Brand is a powerful and disturbing story about women in a maximum-security prison. Aggravated by intimidation, violence and rape, the inmates are forced to endure inhumane conditions while being worked like slaves. The convicts, played by MC Lyte, Da Brat, LisaRaye, Lark Voorhies and Monica Calhoun, eventually bond and re-direct their rage at the modern-day plantation, which exploits them to manufacture products and generate profits.
Prolific director and producer Neema Barnette shot Civil Brand in just 15 days and for under $500,000 ,pocket change for Hollywood. Barnette, an Emmy Award winning veteran TV director was the first African-American woman to direct a TV sitcom, What's Happening Now (1985). A graduate of NYU, Barnette directed over 300 hours of television programming, including The Cosby Show, Gilmore Girls, China Beach, A Different World, Diagnosis Murder, The Sinbad Show, 7th Heaven and My Name is Zora.
Despite a lack of support from distributors for Civil Brand, the film festival circuit welcomed it enthusiastically. "It's a shame that black women filmmakers are not given the financial support to tell our stories", she said, as she introduced her film at the Sundance Film Festival. "We have so much to contribute to the world. "When her film was released on DVD, Barnette said, "I'm elated that so many more folk are getting a chance to see Civil Brand, because the numbers of young third-world women going to prison continue to be on the rise. My hope is that the film will save some of them."
Lions Gate Films, 2004
In 1994 over a four-month period, almost a million people in the African nation of Rwanda were slaughtered. Though Western countries and the United Nations were aware of the bloodshed, they chose to do nothing.
Hotel Rwanda, based on these real events, stars Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the five-star Hotel Des Milles Collines in the capital city of Kigali, Rwanda. Using diplomacy, bribes and shrewdness, Rusesabagina sheltered over twelve hundred refugees from certain death during the carnage.
Long simmering feuds between the Hutus and the Tutsis formed the basis for the violence. The Belgian colonizers had pitted the ethnic groups against each other and after independence in the early 1960s, the hatred only intensified. The spark that set off the holocaust was the assassination of a prominent Hutu general. Many have speculated that the assassination was the work of Hutu extremists anxious for any sort of justification. The Interahamwe militia soon began killing Tutsis by the thousands.
Rusesabagina was himself a Hutu, but his wife Tatiana was a Tutsi. When the violence first started, Rusesabagina was able to move himself and his extended family into the hotel, largely protected because of the heavy presence of white Europeans. He was also able to call on many connections in the Hutu hierarchy. As the weeks went on, more and more Tutsis sought refuge. When the Europeans evacuated under United Nations protection, hundreds of refugees remained with only Rusesabagina standing between them and certain slaughter.
Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo, who plays Paul's wife Tatiana, received Best Actor and Best Actress nominations for Academy Awards, as did Keir Pearson and Terry George for Best Original Screenplay.
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 of sorts 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.
DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN
Lions Gate Films, 2005
Filled with a mix of comedy and drama, Diary of a Mad Black Woman bases itself on the popular play of the same name written by Tyler Perry. The story focuses on Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise), who, with husband Charles McCarter (Steve Harris), lives in paradise, with all of the trappings of wealth. However, on the eve of their 18th wedding anniversary, Helen's paradise crumbles as Charles announces that he wants a divorce and tosses Helen out of the mansion to make room for the other woman.
Helen starts on her journey to put the pieces of her life back together. Through the assistance of her friends, family, faith, and a twist of fate, Helen finds the strength and empowerment needed to take control of her circumstances. She also finds that the tragic events of her life soon become comic, especially with the guidance and help from her pot-smoking, gun-toting, grandmother figure Madea (Tyler Perry).
Award winning hip-hop video director Darren Grant, making his debut in feature film, defines the universal experience of broken hearts, redemption, forgiveness and the importance of family, revealed through a cast of colorful and familiar characters.