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12 Films About Black History

by Gabe Toro
August 14, 2013 4:00 PM
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"Ghosts of Mississippi" (1996)
Directed by Rob Reiner with an astonishing lack of subtlety, the undoubtedly well-meaning but even now dated-feeling “Ghosts of Mississippi” tells the story of the decades-long lead up to the 1994 trial and eventual conviction of unrepentant racist Byron De La Beckwith (a snarling, revolting James Woods) for the murder of black civil rights activist Medgar Evers over 30 years before. A little like Alan Parker’s controversial, incendiary (and much more effective, to the point of rage-inducing) “Mississippi Burning”—which is loosely based on a case referenced in ‘Ghosts,’ in fact—Reiner’s film positions the drama as more of a fight between Good White Guys and Bad White Guys, leaving not a lot of room for any of the black cast members to breathe, let alone get in some decent characterization. It’s a great pity here, as Evers’ widow is very strongly portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg, who steals every one of her scenes with her mixture of stoic, wry intelligence and tamped-down righteous rage. But no, what we’re really asked to invest in is lawyer Bobby deLaughter’s (Alec Baldwin) journey from Dixie-singing assistant DA married to the kind of blonde Southern bigot who’s always played by Virginia Madsen and who sleeps with a bow in her hair, to passionate firebrand crusader married to a supportively forward-thinking nurse. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame a film so almost mawkishly mired in its own good intentions, for the focus of the story it chooses. But it is telling that we have this glossy, A-list Hollywood movie about Bobby deLaughter, the lawyer who convicted the killer of Medgar Evers, but nothing truly comparable about Evers himself. Streets, statues and songs, yes, but movies, no. Instead we have “Ghosts of Mississippi” and its terrible surfeit of cheesy closeups of Alec Baldwin Being Moved.

Panther” (1995)

Mario Van Peebles’ third film chronicles the beginnings of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, depicting the early days of the organization as a way for urban community members to stand their ground in the face of bigotry and police brutality. While the focus is placed on several historically well-known members of the party (primarily Marcus Chong as Huey P. Newton), the film is an ensemble, illustrated by a fakeout introduction that allows us to meet a young child who dies shortly after the opening credits, fooling us into thinking we would watch his coming-of-age. “Panther” is an intense experience, pitting the members of the party against each other as they disagree regarding certain principles, questioning the decision to be non-violent when bodies start to hit the pavement, cutting down the numbers of the separate Panther clans. But the picture’s aim becomes one of militance in the third act. The shady white law enforcement agents spying on the organization and plotting turn out to be a true-life rogue FBI faction, one whom the movie credits with funneling narcotics into inner city environments and crippling radical revolutionary groups. It’s a popular theory, the sort you could never squeeze into a wide release movie today, a disappointing but curious fact. “Panther” isn’t largely discussed today, but it boasts a who’s-who of young stars, including surprisingly strong dramatic turns from Chris Rock and Bobby Brown, though to see a more pointed, less historically-based film that makes similar points, it’s highly recommended to seek out “The Spook Who Sat By The Door.”

Red Tails” (2011)
On paper, what Anthony Hemingway and George Lucas’ “Red Tails” does is illustrate the struggles and adventures of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black pilots deployed during World War II to navigate our airborne battles in Italy as the war raged on from the ground level. But the picture is primarily focused on being a throwback to the war serials of yesterday, where heroes climbed into the cockpit and pulled off death-defying stunts to crush the Kraut opposition while becoming aviation legends in their own right. Hawks portrayed by should-be stars Nate Parker and David Oyelowo headline a cast of characters that, when not battling the enemy, are trading barbs and taking instructions in a manner completely removed from contemporary sensibilities: these are clean-cut heroes, each with certain skeletons in their closet but all joining forces against a common enemy while coping with the ignorant racism from their white peers. The corniness of “Red Tails” in its out-of-time simplicity and hoary clichés feels more conceptual than organic, particularly when matched with the cutting-edge technology that allows for some of the more compelling aerial dogfights ever captured on film. But as great as the significance is that we’re watching the very first black pilots in flight, the Lucasfilms production seems more concerned with old-school Hollywood spectacle, one that simply replaces the hue of the characters involved.

"Rosewood" (1997)
Ostensibly a dramatization of a real-life 1923 massacre that left an entire Florida community burned to the ground (and at least a half dozen African Americans dead), John Singleton's "Rosewood," an unexpected follow-up to his romantic drama "Higher Learning," is a history lesson dressed up with occasional sentimentality (complete with a "sweeping" score by John Williams) and a host of boldly stylistic flourishes. A costly box office flop at the time of its release, "Rosewood" features a fine lead performance by Ving Rhames, who plays a drifter and World War I veteran who, while passing through the town of Rosewood, hears the tale a white woman spins about a black man abusing her. Fearing for his life, Rhames leaves town while the hysteria and lynch mob mentality takes over. (Eventually he comes back, to kill a bunch of motherfuckers.) At the time, Singleton was known for his urban dramas, but here he makes the past come alive via a host of pop culture references to action movies past, everything from classic westerns to the Hong Kong bullet ballets of John Woo. "Rosewood" is occasionally overwrought and came under fire for its deviations from historical fact, but more often than not it's a riveting, beautifully told story that has enough visual dazzle and kinetic energy to keep even the most jaded viewer engaged. Its supporting cast is also unimpeachable and features early work by Don Cheadle alongside established actors like Jon Voight, Michael Rooker and Robert Patrick. While the film concerns a town that's burned down, some of the actors showcase the dangers of chewing scenery. Moving and memorable, "Rosewood" was unfairly overlooked and deserves a second look, at least while the rest of Singleton's body is being reassessed. 

Of course this is merely scratching the surface of even this most underrepresented of topics. Black history is obviously not confined to the U.S., though we took that as our focus, but with a more international flavor there are diverse examples of films that deal with events of historical importance from crowd-pleasers like "Cool Runnings," to explosive dramas that shed light on underreported incidents like 'Hotel Rwanda" and Richard Attenborough's "Cry Freedom" to even old-school epics like "Zulu" and the cottage industry around Nelson Mandela ("Goodbye Bafana," "Invictus," "Winnie Mandela" and the upcoming "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom"). Others may have been set against historical U.S. backdrops, but were themselves fiction, or heavily fictionalized dramas which discounted some of the more obvious prestige pics like "Beloved," "The Color Purple," "The Great White Hope," "The Spook Who Sat By The Door," even "Gone With the Wind" and Quentin Tarantino's controversial "Django Unchained." And, ultimately, some were just "Driving Miss Daisy." --Gabe Toro, with Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor

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  • Gregory D. Goyins | August 26, 2013 11:09 PMReply

    Try "Goodbye Uncle Tom" and then start a list from there.

  • rizzoriss | August 23, 2013 8:24 PMReply

    Should have included "The Hurricane."

  • cineman | August 20, 2013 5:34 PMReply

    Saddest thing about that list is how second-rate/mediocre many of those movies are.

  • AccidentalVisitor | August 17, 2013 1:14 AMReply

    "big screen titles that deal with similarly real people and events from black U.S. history"

    Okay, I'm still trying to figure out your criteria because many films on the list may dealt more with true movements rather than real events and some of them don't even tell the story of real people at all.

    The most depressing thing of all is that most of these movies are actually not that good either.

  • Angela | August 15, 2013 9:12 PMReply

    Claudine (1974) starring Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs. Claudine tries to provide for her six children in Harlem while on welfare. She has a romance with Roop, a cheerful garbageman she meets while working on the side as a maid.

    A Soldier's Story (1984) Starring Howard E. Rollins Jr., Adolph Caesar, Art Evans. An African American officer investigates a murder in a racially charged situation in World War II.

    The Long Walk Home (1990) Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Sissy Spacek, Two women in 1955 Montgomery Alabama, must decide what they are going to do in response to the famous bus boycott lead by Martin Luther King.

    The Imitation of Life (1959) & Pinky (1949)

  • Donella | August 15, 2013 7:07 PMReply

    Great list! I'll add The Great Debaters, an under-the-radar Forest Whitaker/Denzel Washington Jim Crow drama based upon true events (and white savior free).

  • Richard Roundtree | August 15, 2013 12:54 AMReply

    What about Shaft?

  • Gabe Toro | August 15, 2013 7:06 PM

    He's a bad mutha-

  • Anupam | August 14, 2013 9:39 PMReply

    I am wondering why "Do the Right Thing" was not included. Isn't contemporary/post-Civil Rights era Black stories count when we talk of "African American History"? Just a curious comment rather than a complain.

  • Gabe Toro | August 15, 2013 12:01 AM

    It's hard to really say that Do The Right Thing is based on a real event, when it's really the product of a maelstrom of racially-charged occurrences in the 80's and earlier.

  • The Cineass | August 14, 2013 4:34 PMReply

    "He was also coming off the massive success of 'Saving Private Ryan,'..."

    But "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) was released after "Amistad" (1997)......

  • Jess | August 14, 2013 5:04 PM

    You're right, thanks for the correction. Fixed in text.

  • Zack | August 14, 2013 4:30 PMReply

    Thank you so much for including "Night Catches Us" (and for acknowledging all the problematic white-savior bullshit in "Glory.")

  • No | August 14, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    Is there some reason why Nothing But A Man, an independently produced film, made at the height if the civil rights era, never makes it to any such list black films? The film also has a boss Motown sound track., along with Ivan Dixon, Abby Lincoln, Moses Gunn, Gloria Foster, and Yaphet Kotto!

  • Angela | August 15, 2013 9:31 PM

    Nothing But A Man was amazing all way 'round. Gripping story and an incredible cast.
    One Potato Two Potato (1964) about an interracial marriage in the 60's.

  • Gabe Toro | August 15, 2013 12:02 AM

    Ah, that sounds pretty good, I've never seen it. Will seek out, thanks.

  • Zack | August 14, 2013 4:28 PM

    What a great movie that is. I had never heard of it before it was screened in a film history course I took. Criminally underrated.

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