“Get On The Bus” (1996)
The historic Million Man March was bound to result in a film at some point, and considering the amount of extras required, you’d think it would be a massive undertaking. Instead, Spike Lee hustled to get his version of the story onscreen only one year later, by taking an opposite tack: portraying a trip to the event, an intimate bus ride that allows us to witness the spectrum of politically motivated African-American men in the mid-'90s. Lee’s film, shot on the fly with a minor budget, is instead something of a theater piece, not indicative of the racially charged anger that critics claim was a major part of Lee’s stronger films, but showcasing a warmer, more human view of strangers united by a skin color. It’s a bit of a cheat that Lee finds a surrogate in a film student played by Hill Harper, who introduces conversation topics bound to cause debate and disharmony amongst the group, giving Lee and screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood a chance to soapbox about topics like the O.J. Simpson verdict. But the enclosed space also grants a showcase for actors like Charles S. Dutton and the late Bernie Mac, while brief stops along the way to allow for standout appearances from Richard Belzer and Wendell Pierce, adding to the dramatic tempest at the center of this rich, ultimately inclusive film.
There’s a reason some filmmakers are labeled as being practitioners of the same concepts and ideas over and over again: Edward Zwick earned criticism for following “Glory” with films like “The Last Samurai” and “Blood Diamond,” capturing the experience of foreigners and minorities through the eyes of a white, often American, protagonist. Perhaps that observation wouldn’t be so cutting were it not for the ill-fated casting of Matthew Broderick, a fine comedic performer, in the pivotal role of Colonel Shaw here. Broderick’s been classically known as a lightweight dramatic actor with a youthful appearance, and selecting him to front this Civil War drama about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry severely undermines the drama implicit in Shaw’s task. The character here is placed in charge of the group, a battalion of black soldiers that represented the first such group of black soldiers in American history. As an escaped slave, a young Denzel Washington, gives an intense, spirited performance, one that earned him his first Academy Award and paved the way for an illustrious career to come; Broderick would not be the last minor actor he would blow off the screen. “Glory” is otherwise an admirably handsome historical epic, with large-scale battles that cemented Zwick as a filmmaker who could work with massive casts and significant budgets, but it also helped tell a story of the very first time following the Emancipation Proclamation that whites were legally forced to place their lives in the hands of their fellow Americans of a different skin color.
“The Jackie Robinson Story”/”42” (1950/2013)
The two more prominent retellings of this crucial moment in black history take decidedly different approaches in bringing the story of the first black major league baseball player to the screen. The first one, in fact, cheats by going straight to the source: Robinson is tasked with playing himself in this meat-and-potatoes biopic. In an approach that marks Robinson as blessed since youth, we watch him makes his way up the ranks, dominating while maintaining a graceful, intense silence, responding to adversity as simply another wave of athletic competition keeping him from success on the diamond. The newer film, which features Chadwick Boseman as the color barrier-breaking second baseman, focuses more on the racial struggles faced by the player, while also illustrating how he was both passionate and headstrong enough to know that the rest of the world was socially a bit behind in accepting progress in both the sport and in life. Boseman is terrific, ironically much more engaging than the stiff Robinson, and the contemporary film doesn’t feel compromised in its address of racial issues, particularly in one upsetting scene where a rival manager becomes a catcalling jerk in the middle of the game, severely disrupting whatever peaceful balance exists between Robinson and other players. Both films show that, in order to rise above the rancor, Robinson needed to get out there and play ball, opening the floodgates for diversity on the field that led to baseball being recognized as America’s pastime, and a pivotal part of our national identity.
“Malcolm X” (1992)
It took a village to get “Malcolm X” up and running at Warner Bros. Such are the obstacles facing films about black American history, with financiers concerned about "niche" material and a narrow appreciation of history among the audience, black or otherwise. “Malcolm X” was a different beast, however, one that refused to shut down, as director Spike Lee pooled in some of his own money while receiving contributions from almost every major black celebrity to tell the story of the incendiary Civil Rights leader. Lee’s film is unique because of how it dispenses with standard biopic trappings, instead depicting a colorful black culture that provides a playground for handsome young Malcolm Little, in a star turn by Denzel Washington that remains one of the best performances to never be honored with an Academy Award. Little’s rise in the criminal underworld results in a broken spirit behind bars, which allows for a rocky conversion to Islam, sowing the seeds for a tumultuous time spent speaking on behalf of black Americans, urging them to come together and rise up against white oppressors. Lee makes sure to depict Malcolm’s evolving views, just as he examines the paranoia of his last days, surrounded by prying eyes and invasive forces concentrated on subversive elements. The struggle to bring “Malcolm X” to the big screen was a worthy one, resulting in a vital, lively picture that demonstrates Malcolm X as a fiery, multi-dimensional personality, one who redefined what it was like to be black in America. It also provided a showcase for a never-better Washington, one that cemented his status as one of the great actors of his generation; in “Malcolm X” he’s exciting, handsome, and ultimately moving as a charismatic firebrand who sought change during politically troubled times.
“Night Catches Us” (2010)
It's been years since Marcus (Anthony Mackie) has visited Philadelphia, but everyone’s memory remains fresh, and bitter. Marcus was a former Black Panther, but is known locally as a snitch, rolling over on a fellow radical who ended up dying during an arrest. With hostility from even his brother (Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter), Marcus finds no sanctuary anywhere but in the arms of the widow of the man he outed (Kerry Washington). Making amends, he befriends her and her daughter, but soon the relationship grows more intense; when the local police think they can hit Marcus up for another favor, it creates a tension that results in him questioning his own identity and what constitutes social responsibility, both to the people around him and to the racial realities that still surround a black man in 1976. Tanya Hamilton’s underseen 2010 drama takes its cues from real-life incidents, but the line between fact and fiction is more blurred than in most examples here, as she also creates a personal, intimate portrayal of the later generations of Black Panthers, those forced to pay for the actions of their predecessors while still staying true to their communities. With an intense score from The Roots, the picture also features a standout role from Mackie, who proves to be deserving of more widely seen work, giving a performance that respects the moral ambiguity of a politically dangerous moment in time.