This Friday sees the release of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” (our review) the true story of Eugene Allen (renamed Cecil Gaines for the film), an African-American butler who served multiple presidents through several generations in the White House. As played by Forest Whitaker, Gaines bears witness to pivotal moments in the nation’s evolution, watching as the intersection of American history and black history reveals truths about himself and his surroundings, understanding both where he’s been, and where he’s going.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, films explicitly about black history in America are few and far between. Many find the stories mediated through the eyes of a white protagonist to better sell to a wider (read: whiter) audience. Others rely on common populist crutches that limit black advancement to the field of music or sports. As a result, while the big screen undoubtedly lends itself to capturing the scope and breadth of the black American experience, there’s a long list of fantastic films that were relegated to television (for budgeting or target-marketing reasons) that document African-American history with panache, titles like “Roots,” “The Rosa Parks Story,” “Boycott,” "Separate But Equal," "Thurgood" and “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.”
But as prestige-y and high-profile as "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is, we decided to take a peek at a variety of big screen titles that deal with similarly real people and events from black U.S. history. It remains difficult to get funding for these types of films today, mostly because it remains difficult to get funding for any type of film that doesn’t rely on explosions or capes. But despite everything, through the years, a number of filmmakers have taken a serious-minded, intense approach to the struggles and victories of the black American, from the slave era to today. Some are undoubtedly more successful than others, but here are twelve big-screen films that at least attempted to give cinematic voice to some historical aspect of the black experience in America.
Movies have been made about Muhammad Ali before and since, but often they kowtow to his notorious vanity and outsized charisma, placing him at the center of the universe. Michael Mann remains the only filmmaker thus far to understand that Ali was part of a rich tapestry of an extraordinary era of black politics and social change, a titan attempting to stand straight in the middle of a tempest. Most were bewildered when “Ali” opened in 2001, as it pictures the boxer in a deeply lyrical manner, framing him against a live performance by Sam Cooke, suggesting that the story we were about to see was deeply rooted within a complex American legacy. Will Smith’s Ali is, like the inspiration, handsome and brash, big and proud—it's unquestionably the best thing the former Fresh Prince has ever done. Mann’s film is an ensemble piece, however, not just for Smith but also for Ali. The film picks up when he’s already a heavyweight champion, with the name Cassius Clay, before he meets Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall), who claims he must now be Muhammad Ali and convert to Islam. Thus begins the most tumultuous era of Ali’s life, as he refuses to volunteer for the Vietnam War (the subject of the upcoming Stephen Frears documentary "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight"), and becomes involved with several extramarital affairs while carrying on with the peripheral characters of his life, including famed sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) and trainers Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx) and Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver). Like Ali himself, Mann’s film floats like a butterfly, but in lieu of a sting, it levitates, presenting, through the prism of Ali’s life, a moment when America was forced to question their allies and heroes, and face the truths about an increasingly racially diversified world.
There was a certain inevitable failure to Steven Spielberg taking on “Amistad” as a directorial project. Years before, he had dealt with negativity from the black community for making “The Color Purple.” He was therefore under pressure to produce a great picture, particularly given the needs of the still-fresh DreamWorks he had just co-founded, and also to right previous wrongs. The film follows a major Supreme Court case to determine the rights of rebellious slaves who, in 1841, led a mutiny of their slave ship headed to Cuba, only to end up on American soil. The slaves are arrested, as the courts attempt to determine who should be in true possession of the boat: slavery is still legal in America, but the international slave trade had already long been outlawed. Spielberg’s film feels as much about the institution of slavery itself as it does about the truth of the case, which (as seen in the film) involved a complex series of restrictions on citizenship that clashed with common perceptions about slaves on American soil. “Amistad” is credited with the discovery of the talented Djimon Honsou, but it features a number of unconvincing casting choices, including Matthew McConaughey as attorney Roger Baldwin, just one year after defending Samuel L. Jackson for a revenge murder in “A Time To Kill.” Unfortunately, the structure of Spielberg’s film manages to maintain the second-citizen status of blacks within the trial, compounded by a number of European actors playing American figures (including two presidents played by Brits) to suggest what historical pictures have always illustrated as a representation hierarchy: if you were to judge by films, you’d assume all of human history originated from the United Kingdom. Oscar bait though it may have been (the film received three Academy Award nominations) it still represents a significant story wherein the architects of our nation were forced to question their prejudices.
The Negro Leagues of the 1930s were a sore spot for the history of social progress in sports, given that even those who supported integration were content with the entertainment level provided by segregated baseball. John Badham’s classic sports comedy, however, isn’t concerned with the racial aspect of the Negro Leagues, but the business end: charming pitcher Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams) is not the only player who rankles under the harsh and underwhelming salaries of Negro League stars, but he’s the first one to propose that a group of their best players secede instead. His Traveling All-Stars And Motor Kings become more of a sideshow than a league, going from town to town and dividing the box office receipts for themselves, while also sapping a chunk of the profit from their former bosses and current competitors. “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars And Motor Kings” opts not to focus on the racial strife and ugliness that led to the compartmentalization of black athletes, but the financial discrepancies, taking a look at an equal pay situation through the prism of a crowd-pleasing comedy where dangerous racist elements keep surfacing, taking a lighthearted view at a very basic problem regarding segregation that forced some to think creatively.