FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM
The Issue of Race in Film
This exhibit chronicles the journey of America and African Americans "From Slavery to Freedom" and some of the many steps along the way that have been depicted in American film. It is not about film criticism, although some of the films represented are better than others. Nor is it an attempt to present films as accurate history.
Film is a powerful medium with the ability to influence for good or bad. One should never learn history from film. The primary purpose of feature film (as opposed to documentary film) is entertainment, not education. Its goal is storytelling and film writers and directors have never been shy about changing or distorting history to make the story "better." Over the years, they have gone to some extraordinary lengths in perpetuating misconceptions and inaccuracies and in some cases, even invent or omit characters to help move the story faster. Truth is not the primary interest of feature filmmakers.
Documentary films attempt to be more historically honest in their portrayals, but even they can be influenced by budgets and decisions by directors who are motivated out of a fear of low audience turn-out or of presenting negative images, rather than telling the whole story.
Film is also limited by both the production costs and by the length of a film that an audience will endure. In the process, the filmmaker may omit all sorts of people, issues and complexities because they are unimportant, do not fit into an imposed time limit or are too expensive to shoot.
One of the earliest problems for African Americans in film was the complete omission of blacks from the screen. Instead, whites in blackface played them. On the relatively rare occasions that blacks did appear, it was usually in negative stereotypes or as one dimensional entertainers, both of which omitted the richness of African-American culture and the talent of its performers. Blacks were, in the words of African-American author Ralph Ellison, "invisible." Later, when films presented blacks in too positive a light or they challenged southern racist attitudes, censors simply edited black characters out of versions shown to southern audiences. Many films never even played in some southern locations.
From the early teens, however, there were also silent films with all-black casts created specifically for African-American audiences by both black and white producers and directors. Consequently, a "separate cinema" of films grew up which played in segregated theaters of both the North and the South. In some ways, it was as if a parallel universe of African American films existed. With the advent of sound in the late 1920s, production expenses increased and many directors and performers, especially African American ones, did not survive the transition. Sadly, only a few of these early silent films and sound films have survived.
It has only been in the last few decades that Hollywood and Independent film producers have realized that there is a market for African-American films and that non-black American audiences have partially grown out their racism - at least on the screen. This recognition has presented more work for African-American producers, directors, and actors and pushed the filming of more African-American stories. Moving from slavery to freedom is not an easy struggle.
Films are multi-faceted and regardless of who makes them, can be positive, and reflect pride or individual accomplishments, or they can continue to reflect stereotypes and distortions. In addition to entertaining us, some films inspire us, make us think, point to important events and people, and sometimes stir emotions. It is then our job to investigate what really happened.
The film posters in this exhibit reflect some of the major issues in American's struggle to overcome racism that finally made it to the silver screen. In some cases, the films were controversial at the time of their release. Some seem tame by today's standards, but too often, the issues depicted remain. The films (and posters) include themes from literature; the lives of individuals from sports, entertainment and politics; documentaries about specific events, individuals, and issues; and fictional biographies and stories that represent greater societal issues.
It is with hope that the posters exhibited here will illustrate that the "journey toward freedom" has come a long way because of the courage and sacrifices of many people. It is also with hope that they will remind us not to take this progress as the end of the road; but rather to insure that the gains made are not lost and encourage that we continue the journey.
William McRae, Ph.D
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE
Universal Pictures, 1922 (set in 1704)
Two hundred years after English writer Daniel Defoe penned The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in 1719, Universal Pictures produced an 18-chapter serial based on his classic adventure novel. In the serial, Hollywood silent film veteran Harry Myers stars as Crusoe opposite the legendary African-American actor Noble Johnson, who plays Man Friday.
Behind Robinson Crusoe lies the true story of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who in 1704, after quarrelling with his ship's captain, asked to be put ashore on the uninhabited island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile. Having survived on his own for five years, Selkirk later became a celebrity after his rescue and return to England in 1709. An account of his adventures was widely published and provided Defoe, who was familiar with the story, with a pretext for his own novel.
Defoe's masterpiece, considered the first novel in the English language, was also the first to be mass-produced. The book directly changed the way stories were told because the story is narrated by the main character in the first person.
Robinson Crusoe is a mariner who at nineteen years old runs away to sea to become a slave trader. Following a series of business ventures in Spain, then South America, he ends up shipwrecked on a desert island. With only a few salvaged supplies, he manages to build shelter and survive. At first he is in despair and repeatedly turns to his Bible for comfort. With patience and ingenuity, he slowly transforms his dismal island into a tropical paradise.
For twenty-three years, he lives in solitude until one day he discovers a single footprint in the sand and suddenly realizes he is not, after all, alone. Following the arrival of cannibals on the island, Crusoe rescues one of their native prisoners and christens him "Man Friday." He teaches Friday simple words in English, undertakes his religious education, and brings him back to England when rescued five years later.
Crusoe, however, is not an advocate of equality. He is an Englishman whose own island is an example of the larger British Empire. He is the ruler over his own colonial empire, albeit small, in which Friday is his subservient subject, and is taught to call him "Master." In this sense, Friday is the embodiment of the subjects of the British Empire. Though Crusoe never considers Friday his equal, a bond grows between them as the colonial Englishman develops friendship and true affection for his "subject."
While Crusoe's opinions about slavery and his attitude toward Man Friday may appall modern readers, Defoe's 18th century novel stands as timeless reminder of an earlier stage of Western culture and attitudes.
JEFFERSON IN PARIS
Merchant Ivory Productions, 1995 (set in 1784)
e-over excerpts from Jefferson's letters about French culture, diplomacy and government as it neared its own political revolution, as well as segments dealing with his interests in architecture, inventions, and hot air ballooning. The underlying issue of Sally Hemings is what gives suspense to the story.
Jefferson and Hemings relationship, that lasted over thirty-five years, is now less of a mystery. Their surviving three sons and daughter were all freed upon reaching twenty-one or at Jefferson's death. Elizabeth and William Beverly entered white society upon gaining freedom. In the 1830 census, Sally Hemings was living in Virginia, with her other two freed sons James Madison and Thomas Eston, all listed as white.
Hal Roach / Vitalife, 1959 (set in 1820)
Adapted from the 1829 short novel by the French writer Prosper Merimee, Tamango is the story of revolt by a group of captured Africans aboard an 1820 slave ship. Although the French had already declared the slave trade illegal in 1818, a slave ship captain (Curt Jergens) buys a group of natives enslaved by a local chieftain.
On board ship, the slave, Tamango (Alex Cressan), is determined to fight for his freedom despite the reluctance of more passive slaves. Tensions complicate the revolt as a result of the captain's deep affection for his concubine, the slave girl Aiche (Dorothy Dandridge) who is torn between him and the freedom of her people. The unarmed slaves launch their rebellion and in the final confrontation, Tamango takes Aiche hostage, forcing the captain to choose between saving Aiche, or quelling the revolt and possibly killing her.
When released, the film provoked much controversy, particularly the explicit interracial love scenes between the captain and Aiche. It was directed and shot in France by John Berry, the talented Hollywood veteran, who fled overseas after being summoned to appear before the 1951House Un-American Activities Committee after accused of being a communist. The majority of Berry's films since the 1950s were for French audiences but he did direct again in America in 1974 with Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones in Claudine.
Dreamworks, 1997 (set in 1839)
Joseph Cinque, one of fifty-three slaves on board the Spanish slave ship The Amistad going from Havana to Puerto Principe in 1839, led a mutiny of the slaves. The Africans gained control of the ship, killed the captain and the cook and forced their two Spanish purchasers to sail toward Africa.
By day, the Spaniards pretended to sail in the direction of Africa but by night, they navigated toward the U.S. mainland. After several days, during which the slaves held the owners captive, the American brig The Washington sighted the ship. Sensing that something was awry when they noticed a Spanish ship commanded entirely by Africans, The Washington stopped The Amistad and sought an explanation. When the captain of The Washington discovered that Cinque and the other slaves were in command because of mutiny, he took the Africans into custody.
The capture of The Amistad inspired the anti-slavery forces to join in an effort to help the slaves retain the freedom they had gained on the high seas. In the meantime, the Spanish government pressed its claim for the surrender of the ship. It is probable that President Martin Van Buren would have yielded had the case not already entered the courts. Two lower Federal courts acquitted Cinque and his followers of the charge of piracy. Nevertheless, their case was then taken on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.Former President John Quincy Adams argued and won the case for Cinque and his companions. They were released and with funds provided by the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, were sent first to England and then back to Africa.
Amistad is a highly fictionalized Hollywood account of that story, directed by Steven Spielberg. Despite omissions, oversimplifications and in some cases clear misrepresentations of characters, the film still reminds us of one of the more interesting incidents in American racial history that is often called the first U.S. civil rights case.
THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1960 (set in the 1840)
Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been described as possibly the most American of American novels. Twain's story of the conscience-tormented Huck and his protective runaway slave companion Jim, carries the reader through numerous adventures and encounters as the two escapees float on a raft down Twain's beloved Mississippi River and into increasingly dangerous slave territory.
Huck's relationship with Jim is the heart of Twain's morality tale. Both characters are runaways - Jim from the torture of southern slavery and Huck from the torture of his abusive father, social restrictions and conventions. At the same time, however, Huck wrestles with his troubled conscience. Should he free Jim from slavery and, therefore, be condemned to Hell? Huck's moral awakening to the injustice of slavery, and his decision, is among the most powerful statements against racism in American literature.
Film versions of Twain's story have been attempted since 1920 in over a dozen features and other spin-offs. None of them, however, captures the true essence and spirit of the story. The parts of the plot interact so well that attempts to adapt or shorten it simply cut the truth and meaning from it. Box-office conscious filmmakers usually melt in the face of controversy and in order not to offend, remain terrified to go anywhere near the "N" word.
Ironically, when the book first appeared in 1885, puritanical religious Americans condemned it because of Huck's socially unacceptable cigarette smoking and foul-mouthed behavior. More recently, with the civil rights movement and actions taken by the NAACP, the criticism focused on the racial issues of the book, particularly the use of the term nigger. As recently as 1998 Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit by an African-American parent, who was also a teacher, demanding that the book be removed from mandatory reading lists in the Phoenix, Arizona, school system. Although the NAACP previously supported various protests against the book, its current position states, "You don't ban Mark Twain, you explain Mark Twain."
Paramount Pictures, 1975 (set in 1840)
Spurred by the early 1970s success of such "Blaxploitation" (black exploitation) films as Shaft, Superfly, and Sweet Sweetback and their emphasis on black confrontation of white oppression, Hollywood changed it's perspective on slavery and the "plantation myth" with which audiences had become so familiar. Gone were the devoted slaves and demure southern belles of sentimental films such as Jezebel (1938), Gone With the Wind (1929), and Birth of a Nation (1915).
Mandingo, adapted from the 1957 bestseller by Kyle Onstott, reverses this myth of a harmonious old South and exposes the barbaric nature of the slave system. Set on a crumbling, decadent, 1840s antebellum Louisiana plantation called Falconhurst, the film examines the declining years of the cruel slave-breeding Maxwell family. The greedy and tyrannical patriarch of the plantation buys Mede, a superior athletic slave, in order to pit him against other slaves for sport and profit. Ultimately, however, the wife of the owner's son uses Mede (played by ex-heavyweight boxing champion Ken Norton) as a tool, placing them both in an intimate and tragic relationship.
Depicting the more realistic sexual and violent aspects of slavery, the film presents a compelling slice of American history in lurid and brutal terms. Though considered tasteless by many, some critics defended Mandingo as the only Hollywood film to present an honest and thorough depiction of the direct connection between racism, slavery and white fears of black male sexuality.
UNCLE TOM'S CABIN
Universal Pictures, 1927 (set in 1850)
When Abraham Lincoln met the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin he reportedly joked, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, first published in 1852, was the most popular book of the 19th century, second only to the Bible in sales. By the start of the Civil War, nine years later, the novel sold three million copies and is credited with helping to end slavery in the U.S.
The abolitionist Stowe wrote her classic to publicize the evils of slavery especially in response to passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal to help a runaway slave. She based her book on her personal observations in the South and her contact with fugitive slaves while living in Cincinnati, Ohio, across the river from slaveholding Kentucky. Her story of abject cruelty on the part of masters, descriptions of the suffering of slaves, and the condemnation of the South's "peculiar institution," won many readers over to abolition.
For decades the book spawned hundreds of highly successful theatrical versions known as "tom-shows" that barnstormed the country for over seventy years. A few remained faithful to the story but most re-interpreted it and completely distorted its message. Productions in the North focused upon the injustices of slavery, while productions in the South embraced plantations as an idyllic environment. Some productions even defended slavery.
The popularity of the novel spilled over into the next century and onto the screen. Uncle Tom's Cabin was almost as important to the history of American movies as it was to the history of the American stage. The Great Train Robbery (released in December 1903) is often cited as the earliest American feature film.
However, Edwin S. Porter, who made that movie for Thomas Edison's film company, had two months earlier actually filmed a ten-minute version of Stowe's novel that was released in September 1903. Between 1903 and 1976, over a century after the novel was published, at least a dozen films titled Uncle Tom's Cabin were made, making it one of the most filmed stories in history.
Actor and activist Ossie Davis commented, "It's disheartening how distorted the character Uncle Tom has become since he was introduced over a century ago. Uncle Tom is an anti-hero to many blacks today, but originally he was a force for liberation. You have to understand the time. Uncle Tom was a slave character created in an era when whites justified slavery, saying blacks had no souls. The original Uncle Tom, a God-fearing Christian slave, set out to prove just the opposite."
THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY
Paramount Pictures, 1972 (set in the 1850s)
Whether they escaped the oppression of slavery to the open skies and freedom of the early West or moved there after Emancipation, African Americans contributed significantly to its development. For the first time, many received the opportunity to control their own lives, put down roots, and build families. Although not totally free from violence or racism, the abilities of these settlers stood as the basis for judgement rather than the color of their skin. Most became cowboys on the ranches and ranges of Texas and Oklahoma where they worked as wranglers, bronc riders, top hands and cooks. They were not, however, the mythical black or white cowboys of Hollywood.
Some joined the cattle drives on the famous Chisholm Trail. Other African Americans became businessmen, farmers, soldiers, outlaws or mountain men. A few made it to California for the 1852 gold rush. Some historians estimate that thirty percent of early cowboys were black. Even today most people are unaware of the African-American involvement and contribution to the early West.
Before the introduction of sound to film in 1927, filmmakers produced a few black-cast westerns such as The Crimson Skull (1921) or The Bull-Dogger (1923) specifically for segregated black audiences. In the late 1930s, African-American singer Herb Jeffrey, known as the black "Gene Autry," also starred in a series of "singing cowboy" productions for black audiences with titles such as The Bronze Buckaroo (1938), and Harlem on the Prairie (1939). In general, however, African Americans in the West simply vanished from the screen in Hollywood's fanciful, if grossly distorted presentation of an all-white portrayal of the West. The Legend of Nigger Charley, Buck and the Preacher (1972) and the more recent Posse (1993), although not cinematic masterpieces, are among the small number of films that acknowledge the existence of black cowboys in the 19th century West.
In the deep South of the 1850s, Charley, played by Fred Williamson, obtains his freedom from his dying master. The plantation's overseer, however, does not intend to lose his slaves and is killed in a brawl with Charley. With two other slaves (played by D'Urville Martin and Don Pedro Colley), the trio heads westward to freedom as armed fugitives chased by a professional slave hunter. As with any formula western, after many gunfights Good triumphs over Evil and the heroes ride off into the sunset.
The Legend of Nigger Charley stands as an example of films from the early 1970s produced by Hollywood specifically for inner city black audiences. Labeled "Blaxploitation," the genre was made popular by films such as Sweet Sweetback (1971), Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972) and others that "stuck it to the Man" with anti-establishment plots. In an attempt to capitalize on the success of the genre, film companies exploited every possible theme, including westerns. Unrealistic and formula prone, the films were an outgrowth of the turmoil of the 1960's civil rights movement. They provided black audiences with cinematic urban heroes and heroines previously unseen in Hollywood films.
Tri-Star Pictures, 1989 (set in 1864)
President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 cleared the way for many African Americans to join the military. Motivated by a call to arms by abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, over 1,000 recruits, including his own sons Charles and Lewis, joined the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, the first black regiment to march off into battle.
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 tooks 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.
In 1900, Sergeant William H. Carney of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, became the first African American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in the 1863 Battle of Fort Wagner.
BIRTH OF A NATION
D. W Griffith Corp., 1915 (set in 1865)
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.
The film was a spectacular epic of over three hours, which 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.
However, something else also happened. Partly fired up by a drive to counteract the grotesque racism of The Birth of a Nation, there appeared the first group of independent African-American filmmakers. Realizing the power of this new medium of film, they sought an opportunity to make motion pictures themselves. They scrambled for money, from the black bourgeoisie or white backers, and quickly formed production companies. The Birth of a Race, filmed in response to Griffith's masterwork, presented a more positive image of African Americans to the screen. Audiences, however, ignored the film. Not until prolific black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux released his first feature length film, The Homesteader (1919) and later, Within Our Gates (1919), that a more effective counter to Griffith's message was delivered.
SONG OF THE SOUTH
Walt Disney Pictures, 1946 (set in 1866)
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.
Although commercially successful, the film was discreetly withdrawn from circulation and shelved due to charges of racism. The NAACP acknowledged the "remarkable artistic merit and racial harmony" of the film when first released, but criticized it for distorting the black plantation experience, making slavery appear pleasant and pretending it did not exist.
Despite his stardom, Baskett was an actor during the time of a racially divided America. Ironically, he could not even attend the premiere of the film in Atlanta because no hotel would allow him to book a room for the night.
The film received an Academy Award for Best Song (Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah) and James Baskett received an honorary Oscar for his dignified portrayal of Uncle Remus.
Warner Bros., 1960 (set in 1880)
The celebrated director John Ford is known for his collaborations with actors such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart, his use of the stunning landscapes of Monument Valley in Utah/Arizona, and his Westerns which portray American Indians as villains.
Sergeant Rutledge tells the story of the overlooked but heroic exploits of the African-American 9th and 10th United States Cavalry troops who policed the West after the Civil War, protected settlers and patrolled the U.S.-Mexican border. Most of them former slaves, the troops became known as the "Buffalo Soldiers" for their ability to advance upon their enemies while hiding under buffalo skins. They served, fought and died in an Army that would remain segregated until Democratic President Harry Truman abolished the practice after World War II.
Woody Strode stars as Sgt. Braxton Rutledge of the 9th United States Cavalry, a soldier unjustly accused of rape and double murder and assumed guilty because he is black. Told largely in flashbacks, the film is a mix of a traditional western and a military courtroom drama.
Coinciding with the rise of the civil rights movement, Strode took full advantage of John Ford's efforts to treat minority cast members with more respect than in his past westerns and to present the black man as dignified and noble. Although some of the 1960's audiences may not have been receptive to the antiracist theme, Ford tried to change popular attitudes about prejudice by presenting a man who is neither black nor white, but a soldier.
Strode, a former pro football player for the Los Angeles Rams, successfully broke the NFL's "color line" in 1946 and made an extremely successful transition from sports hero to credible actor in the 1950s. He appeared in over seventy films including Pork Chop Hill (1959), Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Professionals (1966) and Posse (1993).
Home Box Office, 2002 (set in the early1900s)
One of the many programs created by of the Democratic Administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat the unemployment crisis of the Great Depression was the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the late1930s. Among the WPA's diversified activities were the Federal Art Project, the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Writers Project.
Scores of out of work journalists and writers, commissioned by the Federal Writers Project, traveled to African-American communities throughout the country to gather the history and the recollections of the last generation of surviving ex-slaves. The writers collected more than two thousand unedited written questionnaires and interviews, many retaining their contributor 's original dialect. The result is a massive collection housed at the Library of Congress, of the personal accounts of the physical and psychological hardships of slavery.
In a joint venture between HBO Films and the Library of Congress, Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives is a series of dramatic readings by well-known African-American actors, including Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Oprah Winfrey and Samuel L. Jackson. The readings are interspersed with explanations and related historical footage to interpret an era of American history in the words of those who lived it.
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST
Kino International, 1992 (set in 1902)
Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust is a beautifully photographed and poetically told story of an African-American family and collective memory.
It takes place in 1902 on the fanciful location of Ibo Landing of the Gullah-speaking Sea Coast Islands of Georgia and South Carolina. The area served as an entry point for ships transporting Africans to the slave markets and rice fields in Savannah and Charleston. The captives who remained on the Sea Islands, known as Gullah or Geechee, were isolated from the white owned large plantations and cities and, consequently, retained a culture rooted in Africa.
On one level, the film is about three generations of African-American women who emotionally confront their common past and their promising futures. However, a deeper narrative lies in the controversy caused when parts of a family decide to leave their land and legacy for the prosperity of the mainland. Daughters of the Dust is a celebration of a family, but it is much more. It is also the celebration of the history and consciousness of the African-American community as a whole. Saturated with rich colors, period costumes, African symbolism, and traditional Gullah dialect, Daughters of the Dust captures the resonant sounds of ancestral voices.
There are story lines for different members of the family and their own characteristics, but these are often metaphors for the larger history of the African-American community. The title reflects a narrative that focuses upon women, reminding the audience of the strength and role of women in the struggle to rear and hold families together. As the film ends, Nana, the matriarchal grandmother, remains on the island, but only after those who go promise to "take me (and our history) wherever you go."
Daughters of the Dust is about the importance of knowing who you are and where you came from, and about respect for family and ancestors. The story, however, is in part told in a voice over narration of a yet to be born child, which points to the next chapters in the family's future.
Written, directed and produced by Dash, the film took over three years to fund and complete. It was the first feature length film by a female African American filmmaker to receive theatrical release in the United States and won an award for Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival.
THE GREAT WHITE HOPE
20th Century Fox, 1970 (set in 1910)
Before Muhammad Ali there was Joe Louis; and before Joe Louis there was Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, the son of two ex-slaves, Johnson began boxing as a teenager in the Jim Crow-era South. By 1902, he had won at least 27 matches and was making as much as $1,000 per bout.
At the turn of the 20th century, though boxing was less segregated than other sports, it was still a time when the very structure of society was designed to deny blacks opportunity. It was not until 1908 that a black boxer could even contend for a heavyweight championship. When white titleholder Tommy Burns agreed to meet Johnson in the ring, for an exorbitant sum of money, the fight lasted 14 rounds.
Johnson emerged as champion and white America was devastated. In the following year, Johnson defended his title five times against the best white challengers, resulting in an outcry for a "Great White Hope" to come and regain the title. It took eighteen months to lure former unbeaten heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries out of retirement. The public quickly came to view the fight as a contest between races, and it received more attention than any sporting event up to its time. The bout, dubbed the "Battle of the Century," occurred on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada. Johnson knocked Jeffries out in the 15th round, sparking a nationwide uproar and race riots in more than a dozen cities.
Johnson was a black champion in a sport ruled by whites. Flamboyant, arrogant and self-indulgent, he refused to be a second-class citizen and rebelled against the conventions of a segregated society. Perhaps more troubling than his dominance over white opponents were his very public interracial relationships with white women. In 1913, the U.S. government perverted the legal system to make Johnson pay for his lifestyle and success and was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which outlawed the interstate transport of women "for any immoral purpose." When the all-white jury predictably voted him guilty, Johnson fled the country and remained a champion-in-exile until he lost a 1915 bout in Havana, Cuba in the 26th round to Jess Willard. A "Great White Hope" finally triumphed. It would be another 22 years before a black boxer would again fight for the heavyweight title, when Joe Louis did so, winning in 1937.
In 1920, Johnson surrendered to U.S. authorities and served a year in Leavenworth prison. Upon his release, he traveled and fought in Cuba, Canada and Mexico before returning to the United States for the last two sanctioned fights of his career in 1928. Now age 50, and having lost each bout, Johnson's career shifted to exhibition matches. He spent his later years recounting his glory in a Times Square sideshow as well as county fairs around the country. In 1946, Johnson died in an automobile accident in North Carolina at age 68.
In 1968, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play The Great White Hope depicted the life of Johnson. It starred James Earl Jones as Johnson and Jane Alexander as his white girlfriend and both received Tony Awards for their performances. In 1970, the play was adapted into a film with the same lead actors, for which both stars received Academy Award Nominations.
OUR COLORED FIGHTERS
Downing Films Co., 1918 (set in 1918)
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that "the world must be made safe for democracy," and with great reluctance, declared war against the Imperial German Government. African Americans held differing opinions regarding the European conflict, however, some quickly "closed ranks" to help defend liberty and democracy in Europe. Black leaders, after obtaining promises by government officials for improved racial conditions after the war, rallied young African Americans to enlist in the military.
One of the most influential black spokesmen in favor of participation in the war was W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the African-American newspaper The Crisis.
DuBois editorialized: "We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome, that which the German power represents today shall spell death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom, and democracy. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and go shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy."
Moved by such patriotic discourse, many African Americans eagerly joined the war effort. An even greater influence in their decision was the feeling that black patriotism and loyalty was on trial and viewed the conflict as an opportunity to prove their worthiness and discard their second-class citizenship at home.
The War Department decided to send the 369th Regiment (formerly the 15th N.Y. Infantry) of the U.S. Army, to France. They were the first contingent of African-American combat troops to go to war, and nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters" by the Germans who were afraid of their deadly tactics.
In 1918, in order to encourage recruitment and contributions to the war effort, the U.S. government commissioned Our Colored Fighters, a 24 minute film featuring the training and combat participation of African-American troops. The film was shown to audiences throughout the United States, including a screening at Harlem's famous Manhattan Casino in New York.
Built in 1902, the Manhattan Casino was one of Harlem's primary entertainment destinations and renown for being the "proving ground" for black basketball teams, concerts by the 150-piece orchestra of James Reese Europe, activist rallies of Marcus Garvey and parties of socialite Madame C. J. Walker.
THE BLACK KING
Southland Pictures, 1932 (set in 1920)
The Black King (AKA Harlem Big Shot) is a satire on the life of black separatist Marcus Garvey. Made by Southland Pictures, an independent white-owned New York company, it is an example of how films help to perpetuate falsehoods and stereotypes. The film stars A. B. Comathiere, a veteran of the famous Lafayette Players Stock Company, and a favorite of African-American director Oscar Micheaux. Comathiere plays "Charcoal Johnson," a con man that takes money from uneducated African Americans for a fake "Back to Africa Movement." As far as truth or history is concerned, the film has little value except as an example of the types of acting opportunities afforded to African-American actors, even if they were distorted stereotypes. Southland Pictures went out of business and made no other films.
Marcus Garvey, the best known advocate of the "Back to Africa" movement, was born in Jamaica, British West Indies in 1887. In 1914, after witnessing the brutal working and living conditions in his homeland he formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an organization committed to encouraging economic and political independence among blacks. When it failed to take hold in Jamaica, he came to the U.S., via the United Kingdom and established headquarters in New York City's Harlem. Quickly capturing the attention of America's largest black community and recognizing their need for racial pride, he built an organization which celebrated black identity, held conferences and organized grand parades through the streets, marching proudly by thousands of onlookers.
Before long, Garvey published Negro World, his own black newspaper where he introduced the notion of "Back to Africa" to its readers. He believed that blacks would never secure respect until they had their own independent nation in Africa. With widespread disillusionment among blacks, Garvey's movement thrived and by 1920 claimed four million dues-paying members in the UNIA.
On June 27, 1919, he incorporated the Black Star Steamship Corporation. Selling stock for $5 a share, Garvey raised enough money to purchase three ships for transportation back to Africa, The Yarmouth, The Kanawha, and The Booker T. Washington. His inexperience in running a shipping company eventually proved disastrous and Black Star fell into financial ruin. In 1922, a trumped-up charge of Mail Fraud for selling stock through the U.S. Mail sent Garvey to a federal penitentiary the following year. President Calvin Coolidge pardoned and deported him after serving half of his five-year sentence. Garvey made unsuccessful attempts to revive his movement in Jamaica, and later in London, where he died in 1940.
Garvey's legacy and significance to the civil rights struggle is noteworthy. His ideas of economic development, self-reliance, and black power for African Americans were inspirational and later echoed by the Black Muslims, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and others.
GONE ARE THE DAYS
Hammer Brothers, 1963 (set in the 1920s)
Actor-activist Ossie Davis believed that audiences of the early 1960s were sophisticated enough to finally enjoy the stereotypes of past generations. Gone Are the Days, the film adaptation of Davis' own 1961 stage play Purlie Victorious, is a far-fetched comic satire on racial attitudes in the old South. Davis stars as Reverend Purlie, a fast-talking, con-man minister returning home to a rural Georgian plantation to convert a battered barn, owned by a Southern aristocrat, into an integrated church.
By portraying intelligent, articulate black characters. Davis was among a new breed of black actors who sought commercial success by avoiding stereotypic roles. Born in Georgia in 1917, he attended Howard and Columbia Universities and studied acting with the Harlem-based Rose McClendon Players. During World War II, he spent thirty-two months in the medical corps in Africa where he wrote and produced shows for the troops. In 1946, Davis made his Broadway debut in Jeb Turner as a wounded veteran returning to the bigoted South. Also in the cast was Ruby Dee, whom he would marry two years later. In 1950, Davis made his screen debut, with Sidney Poitier, in Joseph Mankiewicz's racial drama, No Way Out.
In the 1950s, both Davis and Dee were blacklisted for their political views. The McCarthy-era witch-hunt nearly snuffed out the careers of dozens of artists including their longtime friend Paul Robeson. But the pair survived the blacklist. In 1955, Davis took the lead role in a TV version of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. On Broadway, he received a Tony Award nomination for his role in Jamaica with Lena Horne and in 1959, he replaced Sidney Poitier in Lorraine Hansberry's acclaimed drama A Raisin in the Sun. By the 1960s, Davis survived the blacklist and thanks to television, his career began to flourish.
As long standing political activists, Davis and Dee continued to speak out for humanitarian causes during the height of the civil rights movement and served as masters of ceremony for Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963. Sadly, two years later, Davis also delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X.
Davis made over one hundred and fifty appearances as an actor, director and writer of film, television and stage. He and his wife received numerous joint honors, including induction into the NAACP Hall of Fame in 1989, the White House National Medal of Arts in 1995, the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 and The Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.
On February 4, 2005, Davis died of natural causes at age 87. He leaves behind a legacy of courage, dedication and inspiration.
Warner Bros., 1986 (set in 1923)
In 1983, Gary Moore, a Florida newspaper reporter working on a story about the lack of African-American residents in Levy County, accidentally uncovered the little-known 1923 massacre of African Americans in the previously almost all-black rural community of Rosewood, Florida.
The incident, sparked by the patently false accusation of a white woman who claimed a black man raped and beat her, was not unique. In a white Southern sub-culture predisposed to lynching and other forms of abuse, it did not take long for the lie to grow. The entire town was burned to the ground with scores of innocent men, women and children killed. In the wake of similar "race riots" in such cities as East St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), and Tulsa (1921), the carnage of Rosewood became lost in the mix of violence. In the midst of the Rosewood massacre, a few persons escaped by initially hiding in the surrounding marshes and swamps just as the Seminoles and Afro-Seminoles had done over a hundred years before when tracked by slave hunters or Andrew Jackson's U.S. troops.
Reporter Moore's rediscovery of the 1923 slaughter prompted the few remaining survivors to sue the State of Florida for not protecting its citizens. Even after the newspaper story appeared in 1983, and featured on a CBS 60-Minutes segment, ten years passed before politicians of the Florida House of Representatives made symbolic reparations.
Rosewood director John Singleton fictionalizes the story and takes liberties with the historical account. The main character, a World War I veteran named Mann, played by Ving Rhames, is entirely fabricated. Singleton, best known for his Oscar-nominated debut film, Boyz N the Hood (1991), nevertheless, presents an unsettling but important event of America's long and painful history of bigotry during the period between its two World Wars.
THE JOSEPHINE BAKER STORY
Home Box Office, 1991 (set in the 1930s - the 1960s)
Born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906, Josephine Baker became one of the best known entertainers in the world. She survived the deadly East St. Louis race riots of 1917 with a determination to leave everything it represented far behind. 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 to accept a $250 per week offer to star in La Revue Negre. The wave of French enthusiasm for "Le Jazz Hot" quickly brought her international fame as an expatriate. Baker left the show over a salary dispute and joined the Folies-Bergere, where she appeared as "Dark Star," a spectacular role that had her dancing naked except for some feathers and a G-string made of rubber bananas. Her eroticism made her an overnight sensation.
In 1927, Baker made her first film, La Sirene des Tropiques, which met with wide audience appreciation. Between founding the Paris 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 romantic 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.
During World War II, she entertained the Allied troops in North Africa and drove an ambulance on the Belgian front. For her work with the French Resistance, she was awarded the Medal of Resistance and later, France's highest honor, the Legion of Honor in 1961. Baker was an early and outspoken advocate for equal rights. Having experienced racial discrimination firsthand both as a child in St. Louis and as an adult on tour, she often criticized 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 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 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 since the late 1940s, proved too great of a burden and she faced eviction. Her close friend, Princess Grace of Monaco, arranged for her and her children to move to a villa in the South of France. She continued to give concerts around the world although bookings became more difficult as she grew older. 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 at the age of 69.
Sixteen years after her death, HBO produced The Josephine Baker Story, starring Lynn Whitfield in a dramatization of Baker's intriguing and celebrated life.
Micheaux Pictures Corp., 1931 (set in 1930)
Oscar Micheaux, considered by many to be the most important director in the history of African-American film, had an entrepreneurial tenacity that led him to write, direct, produce and distribute his own films. Micheaux wrote eleven novels, several semi-autobiographical, and between 1919 and 1948 made over forty films of varying lengths. Unfortunately, not all have survived.
Born in 1884 in Metropolis, IL, he later moved to South Dakota after an early career as a Pullman porter. In 1913, he began to sell his first novel The Conquest door to door. By 1918, Micheaux's third novel, The Homesteader came to the attention of brothers George and Noble Johnson of the black-owned Lincoln Motion Picture Company who offered to buy the film rights. When the two parties could not agree on the terms, Micheaux founded his own production company, produced and directed the film himself, raising money by selling shares of stock in the film. The Homesteader was the first full-length feature film directed, written and produced by an African American.
Micheaux worked successfully and prolifically throughout the next decade, thanks largely to the promotional techniques he had developed in selling his own novels. With script in hand he would solicit advances from theater owners, circumventing the cash flow and distribution problems that limited other all-black companies to producing only one or two films. Micheaux offered audiences a black version of Hollywood fare complete with Lorenzo Tucker billed as the "Black Valentino" or Bee Freeman as the "Sepia Mae West." Above all, Micheaux saw his films as "propaganda" designed to "further the race, not hinder it." He brought to the screen, diverse social issues facing black America and portrayed an ideal world where blacks were affluent, educated and cultured. In the 1930s, his films represented a radical departure from Hollywood's portrayal of blacks as jesters and servants.
With the advent of sound, and its high costs, Hollywood's move into the production of all-black musicals (Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah), and the Depression, combined to bring about the almost complete demise of independent black cinema in the early 1930s. Micheaux, alone, survived.
The Exile, released in 1931, was the first "all-black talkie" produced by a black film company. Banned in Pittsburgh theaters because it involved a "somewhat interracial" love affair, the film was hugely successful at the box office in other major cities. Micheaux's later films were less successful due to low production values and audiences who tired of the repetitive themes. His final feature film The Betrayal (1948), based on his novel The Wind From Nowhere, was a financial failure.
Overlooked for many years, Micheaux's life work has been recently rediscovered partly because of the quantity of his films, the issues with which he dealt and his example as an early African-American entrepreneur. In 1986, the Directors Guild of America posthumously recognized Micheaux with its Golden Jubilee Special Award and in 1987, he received film's ultimate accolade, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
IMITATION OF LIFE
Universal Pictures, 1934 (set in 1932)
The first important black film of the 1930s, Imitation of Life carried the humanization of the black servant to a new high. It arrived in 1934, at a time when a new social consciousness had infiltrated the motion picture industry and began discarding many of the old stereotypes. The film prided itself on its portrait of the modern black woman, still a servant but now treated with dignity and character.
Based on the best-selling novel by Fanny Hurst, the film traces the lives of two widows, one white (Miss Bea played by Claudette Colbert), and the other black (Delilah played by Louise Beavers). Both women have daughters to raise and when they meet by chance, amicably decide to live together as a family. Delilah cares for the house and Miss Bea's child, while Miss Bea works at a career. The two suffer, however, from the hardships of the Depression.
Fortune comes their way in the form of a pancake recipe passed down to Delilah for generations as a family secret. Miss Bea decides to market the recipe by opening a shop on the boardwalk. Within a few years, Miss Bea becomes wealthy after "Aunt Delilah's Pancakes" are a best seller. When offered a twenty-percent stake in the venture, Delilah refuses. She wants neither money nor a home of her own and instead prefers simply to remain the menial keeper of the household. The two women remain lifelong friends and successful business partners. Imitation of Life touched on the idea of white exploitation of the black woman, but steered clear of any real examination of such a theme.
The film is remembered for another subject it raised, but backed away from exploring. Delilah's light-skinned daughter, Peola (played by Fredi Washington), resents being black and in rebellion against her mother's submissiveness, decides to run away, cross the color line and pass for white. The subtext of the film is that of a black woman challenging America's idea on race and reaching out for the opportunities otherwise denied her. In the end, after abandoning her mother and breaking her heart, a repentant Peola returns to her, too late however, only to find she has died.
Imitation of Life was the only film at the time to address or even suggest there was a race problem in America. No other Hollywood film so poignantly affected or perhaps so unknowingly hit a nerve within the African-American community. Audiences were so responsive to the story that in 1959, Universal Pictures remade a glamorized version of the film with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore.
THE JOE LOUIS STORY
United Artists, 1953 (set in the 1930s - 1950s)
Joe Louis, "the Brown Bomber," who many consider to be the greatest boxer of all time, is the subject of this fictionalized feature film. Although Louis had previously starred in two earlier movies, The Spirit of Youth (1937) and The Fight Never Ends (1947) by 1953, however, he was just too old to portray himself. Instead, Professional boxer Coley Wallace played the role.
Louis held the heavyweight boxing championship (from 1937 to 1949) longer than any fighter had in history. From the time he began his professional career in 1934 until he retired as champion, he 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. After Louis suffered two defeats in an abortive comeback attempt, he 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.
Between defenses of his title, Louis served four years in the United States Army during World War II. While in the service he fought in ninety-six exhibition matches to raise money for the Armed Services and boost morale of the troops. To a military that was deeply racially divided, yet united in their cause, Louis became a symbol of national hope. His generosity and his patriotism struck a chord back home. He retired as a sergeant receiving a Legion of Merit decoration for his contributions in race relations and general military morale, exceeding that which was reasonably expected or demanded of a member of the Army.
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. Hounded relentlessly by the IRS for non-payment of back taxes, a succession of broken marriages, and a failed attempt at professional wrestling, Louis was no longer able to live off his fame and popularity. He spent the last three decades of his life in financial difficulty.
By 1970 he began to show signs of emotional distress and paranoia and underwent several months of treatment in a psychiatric hospital. Upon his release, he accepted the position of official "greeter" at Caesar's Palace Casino in Las Vegas, a job that allowed him to interact with the public he knew and loved. In October 1977, at age 63, Louis suffered a stroke, confining him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He died of a heart attack on April 12, 1981 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN
Home Box Office, 1995 (set in 1941)
In 1940, the Selective Service Act required all branches of the Armed Forces to enlist people of all races, but long standing segregationist policies prevented African Americans from entering the Army Air Corps in any capacity - flying or support. Under pressure from political leaders, black newspapers, and a lawsuit filed against the War Department for violating the Act, the Corps lifted the ban.
The Army Air Force began the "Tuskegee Experiment," in Alabama in July 1941, aimed at training African Americans as military pilots. Primary flight studies were at the Tuskegee Institute, the famed school founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881. Once a cadet completed training, he transferred to the nearby specially built segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field for advanced flight training and transition to combat aircraft.
The first class of five black aviators graduated March 7, 1942 and formed the nucleus of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Under the command of Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the Tuskegee Airmen were born. The 99th flew its first combat mission on June 2, 1943. Eventually the 99th became part of the 332nd, a larger all black Fighter Group consisting of four squadrons. By the end of the war, almost one thousand African Americans had trained at Tuskegee and become pilots in the military.
Flying over 1,500 escort missions over Europe and North Africa, they never lost a bomber under their protection to enemy fighters. Their success and ability was recognized by Air Corps military brass and they were credited with helping pave the way for President Truman's 1948 order to fully integrate the armed forces. Lt. Davis later went on to become the Air Force's first African-American four-star general.
Robert W. Williams, a decorated fighter pilot who flew fifty missions under Lt. Davis, spent forty-three years pitching his story, The Tuskegee Airmen, to every major studio and TV station. Success finally came in 1995 when HBO accepted the project, which earned three Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and two NAACP Image Awards. In a fictional account of his experiences, the film, which he wrote and co-produced, details the determination, integrity, and courage of the legendary squadron that helped destroy the myth of racial inferiority.
The all-star cast includes Laurence Fishburne, Andre Braugher, Cuba Gooding, Allen Payne, Courtney B. Vance, Mekhi Phifer and Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
HOME OF THE BRAVE
United Artists/Astor Pictures, 1949 (set in 1944)
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.
A SOLDIER'S STORY
Columbia Pictures, 1984 (set in 1944)
Charles Fuller's drama A Soldier's Play was awarded the 1982 New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, three Obie Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize for Playwriting. Fuller modeled his play after Herman Melville's Billy Budd, which explores a confrontation between evil and innocence that results in tragedy.
Hollywood producer/director Norman Jewison brought the drama to the screen with a screenplay written by Fuller himself. 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. In addition to Adolph Caesar and Howard Rollins Jr., the ensemble cast 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.
THE BURNING CROSS
Screen Guild, 1947 (set in 1945)
The "burning cross" became associated with the bigotry and ignorance of the Ku Klux Klan, but it actually had its beginnings in Scotland where its use as a signal fire gathered members of Scottish clans. In his 1810 poem, "Lady of the Lake," Sir Walter Scott, a fan of Scottish traditions, included a "fiery cross" on top of a hill to summon the clans to a meeting. The poem was very popular among the Scotch-Irish descendants of the South. The Scottish cross, however, was actually not the Roman cross associated with the bigots of later years, but was a more practical X-shaped cross known as the "cross of St. Andrew," the patron saint of Scotland.
The original Klan began in 1866, lasted only a few years and did not burn crosses. Tradition holds that the name for the KKK came during a meeting to name the bunch when someone suggested kuklos, the Greek word for circle. Distorted into Ku Klux and Klan was later added.Thomas Dixon, the racist author of the 1905 novel The Clansman, incorrectly inserted the cross into his book when one of his characters advocates its uses as "In olden times when the Chieftain of our people summoned the clan on an errand of life and death, the Fiery Cross, extinguished in sacrificial blood, was sent by swift courier from village to village." When Dixon's fellow southerner D.W. Griffith directed his 1915 epic Birth of a Nation based on The Clansman, the burning cross appeared as a rallying point for bigotry.
When the Klan re-organized in 1915, its founder W. J. Simmons erected an upright Roman cross and set it afire at an early meeting of the new KKK at Stone Mountain, Georgia.
The independently produced 1947 film The Burning Cross was an early post-WWII attempt by Hollywood to label the bigotry of the KKK as un-American. The film created a great deal of controversy in an era when Jim Crow segregation and lynching were still common. There had been earlier films about the KKK but The Burning Cross was the first one to identify it by name.
20th Century Fox, 1949 (set in 1945)
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, Granny, a strong and moral woman, played by veteran African-American actress Ethel Waters. Granny 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.
Pinky was the subject of a 1952 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in film censorship. Until then, all decisions on film censorship used the precedent set by the 1915 Mutual Film Corporation vs Ohio decision, which stated that motion pictures did not fall under 1st Amendment safeguards because they were considered entertainment and simply a business. When a Texas court upheld the refusal of local censors to allow Pinky to be shown in Marshall, Texas, the case was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the previous decision and ruled that no restraint of trade on film as a business could violate the 1st, 5th, or 14th Amendments. With that decision, Pinky became indeed a groundbreaking film.
THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY
Eagle Lion Films Inc., 1950 (set in 1947)
As a student at UCLA in 1940, Jackie Robinson developed the athletic skills to play baseball, basketball, football, and track, earning him a statewide reputation in sports. In 1941 he played professional football with the Los Angeles Bulldogs and, following service as a lieutenant in World War II, was signed by the Montreal Royals, a minor league farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After winning the league's batting title in 1946, Robinson joined the major leagues as first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He made his debut at Ebbet's Field on April 15, 1947, breaking the "color line"er black athletes to participate in professional sports. 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. Robinson played his entire major league career for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1947-1956). As a tribute, in 1997, major league baseball retired Robinson's jersey number 42.
De Rochement, Film Classics, 1949 (set in 1948)
World War II had ended, the Depression was a distant memory and the McCarthy era was just beginning. In an effort to move away from the adventures, musicals, and melodramas that dominated pre-war Hollywood, filmmakers began dealing with real and controversial issues.
Lost Boundaries, the second of this period's "message films" based itself on a Reader's Digest true story of a black family that lived in a New England town and "passed for white" for twenty years.
In the film, a young black doctor (played by white actor Mel Ferrer) decides to compromise his racial identity in order to get a decent job. With his family, he moves from their black community in the South to the countryside of New Hampshire. After many years without incident, however, the truth surfaces and the family must confront the racism prevalent in small-town America.
The film continued Hollywood's basic determination to confront the racial question in America. While preaching tolerance and communication, all of this period's "message films" indicted a society that was racist toward those who were born black. Although directed by whites and using mostly white casts, these films successfully began to move away from the unflattering stereotypes of African Americans so often employed in films of the past.
INTRUDER IN THE DUST
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1949 (set in 1948)
The last in the 1940's cycle of "message films" was director Clarence Brown's adaptation of William Faulkner's novel Intruder in the Dust. Considered the finest of the quartet of dramas (Home of the Brave, Lost Boundaries, and Pinky), the film remains one of the more faithful screen adaptations of Faulkner's works. The film is a study of a fearless and proud black man living in the racist climate of Mississippi. When Lucas Beauchamp, played by Juano Hernandez in his film debut, is arrested for killing a white man, lynching fever takes over the town.
However, Beauchamp is on trial for more than murder. He is a noble, yet self-righteous man whose uppity arrogance and independence alienates him from the white community who want him cut down to size. He would rather be lynched for a crime he did not commit than give up his dignity or conform to the conventional subservient expectations of a black man.
The film's other central character is Chick Mallison, a white boy whom Beauchamp befriends. When Chick convinces his reluctant lawyer/uncle to defend Beauchamp, the lawyer finds his client stubbornly uncooperative and willing only to proclaim his innocence. Though Beauchamp knows the identity of the real murderer, he is convinced no one will believe him. It is up to the young boy and an old sympathetic white woman who believes in justice, to solve the case by carrying out an illegal late night exhumation, to prove Beauchamp's innocence and prevent his lynching. Ultimately, they succeed and justice is served.
Hernandez did not have an easy time during production of the film. Shot on location in Faulkner's segregated hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, Hernandez had to live apart from the rest of the film's cast and crew at the home of a local African-American undertaker.
Intruder in the Dust stands out among the other films of the period because of its refusal to stoop to any form of condescension towards its black characters or to rationalize the behavior of bigots. America's racial problems could no longer be kept in the background. The "message films" set the tone for the new films of the 1950s and 1960s. Never again would black characters be so obviously exploited.
1959 - Soviet Concert Performance (set in 1959)
Paul Robeson was the epitome of the 20th century hero; an exceptional athlete, actor, singer, cultural scholar, author, and political activist whose talents made him a revered man of his time. His progressive political beliefs, however, temporarily all but erased him from popular history.
Born in 1898, Robeson grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. His father had escaped slavery and become a Presbyterian minister, and his mother was from a distinguished Philadelphia family. At seventeen, he was given a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he excelled in the classroom and in sports including selection to the All-American Football Team of 1918. After graduating, Robeson received a second degree in law from Columbia University. He never practiced law, however. Instead, because of his powerful singing voice and love of drama, he chose to embark on a stage and concert hall career in a profession where blacks had already achieved a level of acceptance during the Harlem Renaissance.
Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, Robeson was one of the first black men to perform serious roles in the primarily white American theatre. He played the lead in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924) and The Emperor Jones (1925). His Othello was the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history, running for nearly three hundred performances. With a baritone voice as deep as a well, Robeson's songs like his trademark Ol' Man River made him one of the most popular concert singers of his time. He performed in a dozen films, including Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul (1925), The Emperor Jones (1933), Song of Freedom (1936) Show Boat (1936) and The Proud Valley (1940).
While his fame grew in the United States, he became renown and well loved internationally. He spoke several languages, and performed benefits throughout the world for causes of social justice. In a time of deeply entrenched racism, he more than any other performer continually stressed racial brotherhood and cultural understanding. At the height of his popularity Robeson was a national symbol and a leader in the war against fascism abroad and racism at home. Though his talents and outspoken defense of civil liberties brought him admiration, it also made him enemies among conservatives trying to maintain the status quo.
During the 1940s, Robeson's activities and pro-Soviet stance came to the attention of political demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite Robeson's contributions as an entertainer to the Allied forces during World War II, he was singled out as a major threat to American democracy. Attempts to silence and discredit him reached a climax in 1950 when the U.S. State Department revoked his passport. No longer able to travel abroad to perform, his career was stifled. It would be eight years before Robeson was free to travel again.
With his wife, Essie, he left for Europe to revitalize his career starting with a British concert tour followed by further travels to the Soviet Union and Australia where he was showered with awards and played to packed houses. In December 1963, after five years abroad and in declining health, Robeson returned to New York. Following Essie's death in 1968, he retired to Philadelphia and lived, with his older sister Marian, in seclusion until his death in 1976.
Even to this day, Paul Robeson's many accomplishments remain obscured by the propaganda of those who tirelessly pursued him throughout his life. He should be remembered for his role in the history of civil rights, his courage and dignity with which he struggled for his own personal voice as well as the rights of all people.
An irony of human history is that in 1956, the same year Robeson was subpoenaed before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Martin Luther King Jr. was deeply involved in the victorious Montgomery bus boycott. The very thing the U.S. ruling class thought it was suppressing by harassing Robeson had found another fearless voice for freedom in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
SEPARATE BUT EQUAL
Republic Pictures Corp., 1991 (set in 1954)
In 1896, Homer Plessy, a New Orleans man of mixed race was arrested for riding in a "whites-only" railroad car. Plessy sued on the grounds that a Louisiana statute requiring segregated streetcars violated his right to equal citizenship under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy vs. Fergusson that segregation of the races, in public institutions and accommodations, was constitutional as long as facilities were "Separate But Equal." This ruling served as justification for Jim Crow laws including segregated railroad cars, hotels, restaurants, restrooms, drinking fountains and even military units. Fifty-eight years later, in 1954, a unanimous vote of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this ruling.
Separate But Equal is based on the legal and related social battles that resulted from one of four similar cases presented to the courts, combined into the U.S. Supreme Court decision which became known as Brown vs. Board of Education. Named after Linda Carol Brown, an eight-year-old black girl from Topeka, Kansas, the case sought the admission of Brown to an all-white elementary school in her own community. The court overturned the "separate but equal" to allow African Americans access to public facilities and resources and paved the way for the end of segregation in schools.
Sidney Poitier stars as Thurgood Marshall, chief council for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund who understands a successful court case could strike down the "separate but equal" doctrine. Marshall manages to push the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court where the justices must struggle between their sense of morality and the precedent set by Plessy vs. Furgusson.
Thurgood Marshall, popularly named "Mr. Civil Rights," laid the legal foundation for today's civil rights landscape. Born in 1908 and reared in Baltimore, Maryland, he attended Lincoln University and studied law at Howard University. Throughout his early career, he was a key strategist in the legal efforts to dismantle racial segregation in housing, voting, and education.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Court of Appeals and in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson offered him the position of U.S. Solicitor General. In 1967, Thurgood Marshall became the first African American to serve as Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. After twenty-four years on the bench, he retired in 1991. He died in 1993 of heart failure.
Home Box Office, 2001 (set in 1955)
Boycott, like The Rosa Parks Story, is about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott when the black community united in one of the first major organized battles against segregation and racism, and established the Montgomery Improvement Association. The film focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the young emerging leader and chief architect of the resistance and of the modern-day civil rights movement.
The refusal of Mrs. Parks to give up her seat to a white bus passenger sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery City bus system by African Americans. The protest led the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the city's segregated bus system policy as unconstitutional. Today the Rosa Parks Library and Museum stand on the arrest site of Mrs. Parks and displays a bust in her honor.
The boycott and related activities were part of a true grass roots struggle, which dealt with bad weather, abusive telephone calls, police harassment and the bombing of the King home. Consequently, black political consciousness began to grow. Informed and mobilized by students, who canvassed neighborhoods and distributed leaflets, the result was an immediate near-total boycott of the city bus system. Bus after bus was empty. King later wrote, "A miracle had taken place. The once dormant Negro community was now fully awake."
Boycott stars Jeffrey Wright in a strongly acclaimed portrayal of Dr. King, especially in his recreation of King's speeches. Inspired by the book Daybreak of Freedom by Stewart Burns, HBO originally produced the film for a younger television audience. Clark Johnson, whose own family moved to Canada to escape the fear and violence under Philadelphia police Chief Frank Rizzo, directed the film. Television audiences may remember Johnson as Detective Meldrick Lewis in NBC's popular 1990's crime series, Homicide: Life on the Streets.
THE LONG WALK HOME
Mirimax Films, 1990 (set in 1955)
The public and political aspects of the1955 Montgomery bus boycott have been the subjects of numerous feature films and documentaries. One of the lesser discussed, but equally painful issues of this period was the internal struggle in white families, some of whose members found it difficult to break free from years of social bigotry, to face the indecency of racism.
What makes The Long Walk Home different is that it's fictional portrayal does not concentrate on the public figures of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks. It focuses, rather, on the personal relationship of two women, a black housekeeper and her white employer, and examines how the boycott's events effected and burdened their individual lives.
Whoopi Goldberg plays Odessa Carter, a married mother of three living on the far side of town. With the boycott to support, she begins the exhausting routine of walking nine miles to and from work at the home of the Thompson family, a typically affluent southern household whose members have opposing views on the boycott. Miriam Thompson, played by Sissy Spacek, is initially only concerned with her own needs for a maid, but when she sees the blisters bleeding through Odessa's socks, slowly finds herself being drawn into the larger issue. Her conscience and the courage to express her convictions, compels her to act and give Odessa a ride twice a week. Thompson, however, who is trapped by tradition and surrounded by violence, must make the difficult choice of joining the boycott and hiding this politically compromising activity from her bigoted family.
The theme follows earlier films about friendships between women of different races such as Miss Bea (Claudette Colbert) and Delilah (Louise Beavers) in Imitation of Life (1934) or Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore) and Granny (Ethel Waters) in Pinky (1949). In this case, however, the emphasis is upon the growth of friendship directly out of conflict.
THE ROSA PARKS STORY
CBS, 2002 (set in 1955)
On December 1, 1955, unassuming forty-two year old seamstress Rosa Parks was ordered to get up from her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus and give it to white passenger. She refused, was arrested, and jailed. This simple but determined act of defiance galvanized the black community into one of the most successful non-violent protests in American history. The boycott, which lasted 381 days, gained national and international attention and ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation of its bus system as unconstitutional.
The events in Montgomery set the tone for the civil rights movement, proved non-violent protest was effective, and propelled the young minister Martin Luther King into a position of leadership.
The Rosa Parks Story, a film made for television, traces the formative moments in Parks' childhood and adult life that helped shape her philosophy of quiet strength. Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award winner Angela Bassett stars as Rosa Parks and features Cicely Tyson, Peter Francis James, and Dexter Scott King, the son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a cameo appearance as his father. Director Julie Dash, a pioneer in her own right, was the first African-American female director ever to have a film in commercial circulation in the United States. Daughters of the Dust, was a prizewinner at The Sundance Film Festival in 1991.
In 1996, Parks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1999 the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's most prestigious civilian honor. On October 24th, 2005, as America planned to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of Parks' historic act of personal courage and civil disobedience, Parks passed away of natural causes. Before her burial in Detroit, Parks' casket lay in honor under the dome of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington DC, the first woman paid this tribute. The legacy of Rosa Parks elevates her to the national pantheon of African-American heroes along the ranks of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King.
In Quiet Strength, a book of reflections published in 1994, Parks wrote: "I want to be remembered as a person who stood up to injustice, who wanted a better world for young people; and most of all, I want to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free and wanted others to be free."
Bus number 2857, on which Mrs. Parks was riding in 1955, is now on display at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
THE UNTOLD STORY OF EMMETT LOUIS TILL
ThinkFilm, 2005 (set in 1955)
Documentary investigating the murder and subsequent injustice surrounding Emmett Louis Till's death. Many consider this case to be the true spark that helped mobilize the civil rights movement. Three months after authorities pulled his body from the Tallahatchie River the Montgomery bus boycott began.
In August of 1955, one year and three months after Brown v. Board of Education, Mamie Till Mobley of Chicago sent her only child, 14 year old Emmett Louis Till to visit relatives in the Mississippi Delta. Little did she know that eight days later, Emmett would be abducted from his Great Uncle's home, brutally beaten and shot in the head for one of the oldest southern taboos; addressing a white woman in public. Although arrested and charged with murder, Roy Bryant and his half brother J.W. Milam, were both acquitted quickly by an all-white, all-male jury. Shortly afterwards, the defendants sold their story to a journalist from Look Magazine that included a detailed account of how they murdered Till.
However, Emmett did not die in vain. His horrific, senseless death sparked national media attention when his mother insisted on having an open casket funeral. Her decision was controversial but her reasoning was simple: "I want the world to see what they did to my son."
Scholars and historians have studied the murder of Emmett Till ever since, and the case has even made its way through African-American folklore. After five decades, people continue to be fascinated and troubled by the incongruous facts surrounding the influential case and controversial jury decision.
Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp produced this documentary unfolding a drama that has haunted society for the last fifty years. He reveals nine years of research and investigation, hoping to finally bring justice to a family and a nation's agony. Unlike any other work produced on the Till case, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till unveils unprecedented accounts by first-hand eyewitnesses, many of whom are speaking out for the first time.
On May 10, 2004, the United States Justice Department reopened the investigation into the murder citing Beauchamp's film as the main impetus and starting point for their investigation. Bryant and Milam are both dead, but a number of others are still alive and could face criminal charges for their involvement in Till's abduction, beating, murder and cover-up.
THE DEFIANT ONES
United Artists, 1958 (set in 1958)
Two convicts, one black (Sidney Poitier) and the other white (Tony Curtis), escape from a prison van shackled together by a two-foot chain. As they flee through woods and swamps, on the run from the law, the two find they cannot run from one another. Curtis, bigoted and threatening, and Poitier, sensitive but exploding with resentment because of a lifetime spent reacting to racism, fight, argue and taunt one another. By the time their chains have been broken and are free to go their separate ways, a bond unites them. Each comes to the rescue of the other at a moment of crisis. Most notably, the Poitier character, who, having boarded a moving freight train taking him to freedom, leaps off to aid his white friend, who is not strong enough to jump on board. Aware that the law will now close in, Poitier sits and cradling a weakened and injured Curtis in his arms, sings "Long Gone" as the sheriff arrives to arrest them.
The Defiant Ones was released only four years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education and with the Montgomery bus boycott still fresh in the minds of the audience. The civil rights laws of the 1960s were not yet written.
Today, perhaps, the symbolism of the film seems obvious in its message, but at the time, the story and the characters were controversial. Both the subject of interracial male bonding and the dialogue, including director Stanley Kramer's willingness to use the word nigger, were confrontational. The issue of racial prejudice was not a usual topic for timid Hollywood film, especially in such an open and progressive manner.
Kramer, one of Hollywood's most socially conscious independent producer/directors, did not shy away from attacking controversial issues with big screen productions. He was the symbol of Hollywood liberalism. Among his several other "message" films were, Home of the Brave (1949) Inherit the Wind (1960), Pressure Point (1962), and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).
The Defiant Ones won two Academy Awards for Best Story/Screenplay and Best Cinematography as well as nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for both stars, Poitier and Curtis.
I PASSED FOR WHITE
Allied Artists, 1960 (set in 1959)
Following on the heels of the immensely successful 1959 version of Imitation of Life, came I Passed for White, which also told the tale of a light-skinned black girl determined to cross the color line. Publicized by advertisements with wording such as " I look white, I married white, now I must live with the secret that can destroy us both," the film exploits the theme of miscegenation.
The main character Lila Brownell, played by white actress Sonya Wilde, meets and falls in love with Rick Layton (James Franciscus), a wealthy son of a snobbish New England socialite family. Fearing that she will lose him, Lila decides to pass for white, although realizing, particularly after their engagement, the obstacles she will have to face. She weaves a web of lies when her fiancée and his parents question her regarding her family background. As she makes her wedding arrangements, she reaches a decisive point. Her decision to continue the deception becomes even more involved when she learns she is also to become a mother.
The theme of miscegenation was generally a taboo subject in Hollywood, but once the Motion Picture Production Codes were liberalized studios jumped at the opportunity to exploit the treatment of interracial couples. An obvious double standard prevailed, however, governing intimate relationships between blacks and whites of the opposite sex. The Code allowed for white men and black women shown as lovers, but not sexual contact between black men and white women. That sort of intimate coupling would remain forbidden ground into the late 1960s when 100 Rifles (1969) paired African-American football legend Jim Brown with Raquel Welch.
BLACK LIKE ME
Walter Reade-Sterling, 1964 (set in 1960)
In the late 1950s, white journalist John Howard Griffin took the unprecedented step of becoming black. By going through extensive and potentially dangerous treatments to darken his skin, he attempted to better understand what it meant to be black in the segregated South. Black Like Me, made in 1964, was based on Griffin's book of the same name about his experiences. It was a gutsy and unprecedented act of reverse "passing" in order to learn first-hand what it meant to "walk a mile in my shoes."
The film, which stars James Whitmore as the re-colored, educated and well-dressed John Finley Horton is full of experiences, which reveal the everyday indignities African Americans confronted. Taunted by whites, slighted by employers and stereotyped sexually, he learns more about race prejudice than he ever imagined.
Black Like Me takes place in the pre-civil rights laws days of the late 1950s and depicts practices well known to African Americans. It was an attempt to educate white Americans about living under the daily oppression, torment and fear of a racist society. Horton feels the resentment and depression although he knows that he is "passing" and can return to a white world.
Released in 1964 in the middle of the civil rights movement, the film, shot in black and white in order to emphasize its documentary mood, suffered from a lack of high production value. Today its style seems outdated, but the underlying issues do not. Both the book and film were important steps forward in helping whites understand that the march to freedom is one that must include everyone.
Turner Films, 2000 (set in 1960)
On Feb. 1, 1960, Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond, later called the Greensboro Four, sat down at the F.W. Woolworth "whites-only" lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, N.C. All four, who were freshmen on academic scholarships at North Carolina A&T State University, politely placed their orders and were refused service based on the color of their skin. They remained seated in silence, had food thrown on them, were beaten and then arrested. Media coverage of the incident helped spark a national sit-in movement.
In the days following, hundreds of members of the Greensboro community organized a six-month protest of sit-ins and economic boycotts, which led to the desegregation of the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter on July 25, 1960. When word of the success spread, black students across the country formed organizations patterned after the nonviolent approach of protesting. In October 1960, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed to organize other student-led efforts.
Freedom Song is set in the small fictional town of Quinlan, Mississippi, in 1961. The civil rights movement was in full force, making its way through the cities, towns and rural communities of the Deep South. The story unfolds through the eyes of an African-American teenager inspired by the arrival of an organizer from the SNCC. The teenager joins the crusade to desegregate Quinlan, although his involvement threatens to destroy his relationship with his father. Starring Danny Glover, Vondie Curtis Hall, Vicellous Reon Shannon and Loretta Devine, the fictional film highlights the activities of real life workers Bob Moses, Chuck McDew and Dave Dennis, who were all organizers with SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
Filmmakers have found a wealth of stories in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, tapping into the well-documented activities of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and other leaders. Such films often base themselves on public records, news accounts and historians' views. Freedom Song offers a different perspective, looking at the residents of one Mississippi town who battled for segregation, fought for the right to vote and, with the assistance of outside organizations, won their fight.
Warner Bros., 1992 (set in the 1940s - the 1960s)
Malcolm Little was born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. 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 before moving to Boston to live with his sister. As a teenager there, and in travels to Harlem, 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 while avidly reading the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. As leader of the Black Muslims, Muhammad renounced whites and preached separatism. In his readings, Malcolm remembered his father's respect for Marcus Garvey and his argument that only blacks can cure the ills that afflict them. This confirmed for him the power of Muhammad's faith.
When he was 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. His militant and persuasive orations about white exploitation of blacks gained a large popular following, especially among black youth. He opposed the integration of the civil rights movement and, like Garvey, advocated black separatism. His preaching of self-defense "by any means necessary" put him at odds with Martin Luther King's philosophy during the civil rights movement.
In1963, because of inappropriate remarks concerning President Kennedy's assassination, the Nation of Islam suspended Malcolm for 90 days. Within months, having become increasingly dissatisfied with leader Muhammad's lack of sincerity and policy preventing Black Muslims from participating in the civil rights movement, he broke away from the Nation of Islam and founded the revolutionary Muslim Mosque, Inc.
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. The overwhelming spirit of brotherhood he encountered there prompted him to change his views on race and religion.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.
In 1992, director Spike Lee brought his cinematic tribute to the charismatic and controversial African-American leader to the screen. Denzel Washington, who plays Malcolm X, received an Academy Award nomination for his role.
FOR US, THE LIVING. THE STORY OF MEDGAR EVERS
Charles Fries Productions, 1983 (set in 1963)
"It may sound funny, but I love the South. I don't choose to live anywhere else. There's land here, where a man can raise cattle, and I'm going to do it some day. There are lakes where a man can sink a hook and fight the bass. There is room here for my children to play and grow, and become good citizens if the white man will let them."
Medgar Evers, "Why I Live in Mississippi"
For Us, the Living is a biographical television drama starring Howard Rollins Jr., and Irene Cara based on the 1967 book of the same name by Medgar Evers' wife, Myrlie Evers. It is the true story of the struggles of her husband, the activist and civil rights leader, who at age thirty-eight was assassinated on June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi by Byron De La Beckwith.
At the time of his murder, Evers was one of the most prominent and well-respected leaders of the civil rights movement in the South. Like his contemporary, Martin Luther King, Jr., Evers advocated persistent, nonviolent means to dismantle racial segregation. Much of his work involved recruiting new NAACP members in Mississippi and organizing them to engage in economic boycotts, picket lines, marches, and prayer vigils. Stalked, threatened, and physically assaulted by members of the KKK, Evers persisted in organizing against Jim Crow segregation in restaurants, gas stations, and movie theaters, as well as public libraries, parks, and pools. His murder occurred in his front yard as he returned home to his wife and three young children from a NAACP strategy session. In many ways, his death symbolizes the brutal racism and violence the Old South used to crush the civil rights movement.
Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist, stood trial twice in 1964 for the murder. Both trials resulted in hung juries by all-white members. In 1994, a third trial of Beckwith, based on new evidence, found him guilty of the murder. He was serving life in prison until he died in 2001.
4 LITTLE GIRLS
40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 1997 (set in 1963)
On September 15, 1963, only five days after the Birmingham public schools desegregated, four young African-American girls, Denise McNair, Addle Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley died when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. Their murders were neither the first, nor the last, atrocity in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. However, the violent act outraged and awakened many to the hideousness and viciousness of bigotry in America. For many, they became the symbol of racial hatred's terrible toll.
Thirty-four years later director Spike Lee returned to Birmingham to tell the story of their deaths and its aftermath in his first foray into the realm of documentary filmmaking. Using photographs, historical footage, home movies, and interviews with community leaders, bomb survivors and family members, he details the political climate in Birmingham, known as the most segregated city in the United States. Interviews with a variety of civil rights activists, politicians, and journalists including Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, Ossie Davis, Andrew Young and Walter Cronkite establish the girls' place in history and remind us that, unlike Medgar Evers, the four young victims were not outspoken civil rights activists. They had not organized boycotts, stood on picket lines, or investigated lynching. They were children.
That was the summer of Martin Luther King's famous March on Washington. Eighteen days after his "I have a Dream" speech, the bomb went off. FBI memos to J. Edgar Hoover named the bombers as KKK members Thomas E. Blanton Jr., Bobby Frank Cherry, Robert Edward Chambliss and Herman Cash. Hoover, however, locked away the audio tapes proving their involvement and blocked their prosecution. He argued that a Birmingham jury, which most certainly would have been all white and menaced by the KKK, would not convict four white men for killing blacks.
In 1971, black leaders in Birmingham convinced the local FBI chief to reopen the case and in 1977, a jury convicted Chambliss in the murder of Denise McNair and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 1985. Cash died in 1994 before being charged. Justice stalled until 2001, when after thirty-eight years, Blanton and Cherry were sentenced to life in prison.
ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO
Cinema V, 1964 (set in 1963)
During the first half of the 1960s, a quartet of inexpensively but sensitively made films offered realistic and cynical looks at black America. Providing a distinct contrast to commercial Hollywood films, Shadows (1961), The Cool World (1963), One Potato, Two Potato (1964) and Nothing But a Man (1964) presented independent and aesthetic "art house" style filmmaking that depicted America's racial problems. With a militant spirit, these films offered viewers black protagonists who demanded a chance to fulfill themselves without having to live up to white standards.
One Potato, Two Potato was the screen's first study of an interracial marriage. The film centers on a custody battle between a divorced white couple over their young daughter. When the husband deserts his wife, she falls in love with an African-American co-worker. Against opposition from his family, the two marry, taking her daughter to live with them. Despite social pressures, their marriage works and the black husband's parents develop deep feelings for their daughter in law and her little girl. However, when the ex-husband learns of his daughter's whereabouts, he initiates a court battle to take away the child. He wins the suit and the film concludes with his driving off with the confused young girl.
The success of these early films of the 1960s led the way for Hollywood to further exploit the genre of interracial marriage and romance in A Patch of Blue (1966) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).
KING: A FILMED RECORD. MONTGOMERY TO MEMPHIS
Radim Films, 1970 (set in the 1950s - 1960s)
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s confronted the validity of America's moral principles by challenging the Jim Crow laws of "separate but equal." It called attention to the legalized social injustices in the South and lack of opportunities for advancement in the North. African Americans began to protest inequality and organized boycotts. Leading the cause was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most visible advocate of non-violence as a method of social change.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929, King became an ordained minister by age eighteen. He was educated at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University where he embraced Mahatma Gandhi's teachings on non-violent protest and received his Ph.D. degree in systematic theology in 1955. As pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, King assumed leadership of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that ended segregation on city buses. The successful use of non-violence as a technique in combating discrimination marked his first victory as the leader of the civil rights movement.
Before leaving Montgomery in 1959 to become pastor with his father of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King participated with others in organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC's purpose was to stage massive non-violent demonstrations and carry the struggle for equality into other communities of the nation. His efforts had mixed success and a series of demonstrations in Birmingham in 1963 led to his arrest and confinement during which time he wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
Following the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, King decided to bring national focus to the civil rights movement by leading a huge "March on Washington." It brought 250,000 people, of all races, to the Lincoln Memorial in support of proposed civil rights legislation. The march culminated with King's moving "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed in Congress and King received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
King's interests widened from civil rights to include criticism of the Vietnam War and a deeper concern about poverty. His plans for a Poor People's March to Washington were interrupted by a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking sanitation workers. On April 4, 1968, while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel with Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, King was shot and killed by a sniper. His death caused riots, looting, killing, and waves of disorder in U.S. cities, with the worst destruction taking place in Washington, D.C., only blocks from the Lincoln Memorial. The riots subsided in a week but the anger and frustration that caused them remained.
King: A Filmed Record. Montgomery to Memphis is an Oscar winning documentary. Using news and archival footage interspersed with narration by distinguished actors, it explores King's peaceful philosophy and his triumphant but tragic thirteen-year journey that began with the Montgomery bus boycott and ended tragically in Memphis with an assassin's bullet.
Gramercy Pictures, 1995 (set in 1966)
Writer Melvin Van Peebles revolutionized black cinema in 1971 with Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. In Panther, he teamed up with his son, director Mario Van Peebles, in a fictional and interpretive account of the rise and fall of the Black Panthers, the radical organization that advocated self-defense in the fight for civil rights.
The 1960s were a time of turbulence and revolution among African Americans. Marches, demonstrations, voter registration drives and court decisions suggested change to race relations was in the making, but justice and equality still lay out of reach for most. Out of this movement, and in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party For Self Defense emerged. Formed in Oakland, California, by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, they created the Party to further the movement of black liberation. Stressing racial dignity and self-reliance, the Party encouraged African Americans to define, participate and control the world in their own terms.
Their spokesman, Eldridge Cleaver, rejected the integrationist, non-violent stance of Martin Luther King and in a literal "call to arms" declared that the choice before the country was "total liberty for black people or total destruction for America." Their revolutionary agenda gained national attention when Newton, who led a group of gun carrying demonstrators into the California State legislature, was convicted on a charge of manslaughter in the death of an Oakland policeman. Soon chapters of the Party began opening in major cities across the country. They called for full employment, decent housing, black control of the black community, and an end to repression and brutality.
Following the Panthers' conspiracy to disrupt the Democratic National Convention of 1968, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI labeled the Panthers "the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States." The government made a concerted effort to eliminate them as an extremist organization resulting in police raids and shoot-outs at Panther headquarters across the nation. By the mid-1970s, with its leadership having been decimated by prison sentences and police killings, the Panthers turned to conventional politics and continued providing social services in black neighborhoods. In the early 1980s, the party had effectively disbanded.
AKA CASSIUS CLAY
United Artists, 1970 (set in 1968)
Muhammad Ali, arguably 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. Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942 at a time when being black and poor meant almost no prospects for economic advancement. The young Clay became lucky though, 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 Summer Olympics in Rome.
On February 25, 1964, Clay shook up the boxing world when he unexpectedly won the heavyweight championship title from Sonny Liston. After the victory, Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated, the U.S. Army inducted Ali. Citing his Islamic faith, he refused and was stripped of his title, had his boxing licenses revoked and was sentenced to prison for draft evasion.
At the time, he commented, "I'm expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam, and at the same time my people here are being brutalized and mistreated_.I got nothing against no Viet Cong... No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger."
Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the sentence on appeal. Granted a license to box again, Ali staged a comeback. He had a long-running personal rivalry with fellow heavyweight Joe Frazier, whom he fought three times, and defeated George Foreman in the famous 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali later remembered, "Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn't trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free. And I made a stand that all people, not just black people, should have thought about making, because it wasn't just black people being drafted."
AKA Cassius Clay is an in depth documentary featuring clips from Ali's early bouts, commentary from his personal trainer Cus D'Amato, and rarely seen interviews with the fighter himself. The film was released in 1970, prior to his legal victory in the U.S. Supreme Court.
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.
SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG
Cinemation, 1971 (set in 1970)
"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.
Blaxploitation arose at a critical juncture for the Hollywood film industry. The 1960s were turbulent times in American race relations and the civil rights movement exploded onto the national scene. As the decade wore on, cries of "Black Power" were heard from the ghettos and middle-class neighborhoods across America and it became increasingly difficult for Hollywood to ignore the black community. While political activists battled in the courtrooms and the streets to end segregation and win voting rights, black filmmakers and actors began to infiltrate Hollywood.
By the late 1960s, the major Hollywood studios were still reeling from the profound effects of a two-decade old Justice Department lawsuit that challenged profitable theater monopolies. Combined with the popularity of television, and the drop in audience love for "The Musical," the film industry was losing millions of dollars, forcing many studios to face the distinct possibility of bankruptcy. The civil rights movement and Hollywood's declining profits came together at just the right moment and Blaxploitation was born.
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.
GET ON THE BUS
40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 1996 (set in 1996)
From Rosa Parks, to the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, buses and their riders have played an important role in the journey from slavery to freedom.
Get On the Bus is director 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. Entirely shot on the bus, the film includes visual background stories of the characters, allowing the audience to identify the reasons for their individual opinions and beliefs.
Traditionally, American films have the unfortunate habit of tying themselves into neat conclusions. This is not the case here. Lee's film is neither preachy nor patronizing and its importance is not the destination, but the journey. If there is a "message" it is that, it is essential for African-American men to acknowledge and accept their differences and join together to help confront the more serious issues in society. Although it is not the purpose of the film to educate a white audience, it does present a voyeuristic opportunity to see and hear the diversity of African-American life that should be important to everyone.