Black History on Film
by Phil Boatwright

In celebration of Black History Month, allow me to point out some films featuring African-Americans that have taught as well as entertained.

THE DEFIANT ONES (1958). Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier star as escaped chain gang prisoners in this adroit look at racism and how hatred dissolves as they begin to unite.

DOWN IN THE DELTA(PG-13, 1998). A Christian mother sends her substance-abusing daughter to relatives down South. There, she learns about responsibility and the importance of family. Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman, Jr., Wesley Snipes, Loretta Devine.

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967). Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier. The subject is interracial marriage. A bit dated, but the film has three outstanding performances from three of my favorite actors. It discusses race relations, and does so without abusing the viewer with hostile language or explicit sexual situations. Caution: there are a few expletives.

ONCE UPON A TIME WHEN WE WERE COLORED (PG, 1996). Al Freeman, Jr., Phylicia Rashad, Leon, Richard Roundtree. A distinguished effort from first-time film director Tim Reid about black life in the South between the '40s and '60s. Advances the importance of family and biblical teachings. (No abusive language other than a Ku Klux Klan member using the N-word; a knife fight, but no one is injured; a brief scene featuring dancing girls in a tent show).

SOUNDER (G, 1972). Award-winning performances from Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson highlight this stirring story of a black sharecropper’s family battling injustice and poverty. Truly marvelous.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). This Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote of the Harper Lee novel about rural life, justice, honor and bigotry as seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl stars Gregory Peck. Brook Peters is superb as the humble black sharecropper wrongly accused of molesting a white woman.

WATERPROOF (PG-13, 2001). From the folks at Cloud Ten Productions (producers of films geared toward families) comes a gentle drama concerning redemption and forgiveness. After a merchant is shot in a store robbery by an 11-year-old, the boy’s distraught mother stumbles upon the crime scene. Not wanting her son to be caught by police, yet worried about the old man’s condition, she takes them both to her religious mother’s home in Waterproof, La. Combining humor and drama, the story is very involving, with nice performances from Burt Reynolds, Whitman Mayo and April Grace. It contains some dynamic scenes in a black church, with a touching altar call and a baptism. Compelling and spiritually rewarding.

THE GOSPEL (PG, 2005). A semi-autobiographical film about the transformative power of faith and forgiveness, The Gospel is a contemporary drama packed with the soaring, soulful sounds of Gospel music. Set in the impassioned world of the African-American church, it tells the story of an R&B star (Boris Kodjoe) whose chart-topping albums have earned him fame and wealth, but whose decadent lifestyle has estranged him from his father (Clifton Powell), the bishop of his hometown church. When his father becomes ill, the young man returns home and comes face to face with his beliefs, and, ultimately, himself. THE GOSPEL deals with spirituality, something most filmmakers shy away from when attempting a story about healing and passion. One moment at the end especially touched me, as we see a young man coming forward during an altar call. I found tears coming to my eyes because it was an honest depiction of a soul professing an acceptance of Christ. That’s a powerful concept, one rarely addressed in the cinema.

AMERICA’S HEART & SOUL (PG, 2004). Documentarian Louis Schwartzberg captured both the unparalleled beauty of the U.S. and the incomparable spirit of its people in this compelling portrait of America. Some of the vignettes will cause your sides to ache from laugher, while others will bring a tear to your eye. (I found nothing objectionable or exploitive. The intent of the filmmaker is to present a positive view of what America is and what it can become.)

IN AMERICA (PG-13, 2002). Needing to start their lives over after the accidental death of their two-year-old son, a man and wife and their two young daughters move their family from Ireland to New York. While in their new homeland, they must adjust to American ways, at the same time attempting to heal. But it is the downstairs artist (Djimon Hounsou -– nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar) who truly helps the family see what they have taken for granted. He is a tortured soul, a man alone, envious of what his new neighbors have been given -- each other. When the little girls come to his door at Halloween, seeking treats, he is so moved by their sweetness and energy that he reconnects with his spiritual roots and passes on his revelations to the wounded family. While outright need for Jesus Christ is not mentioned, the film makes it clear that there is something more to life than our mental and physical existence. And although the father is angry with God, the ending offers the prospect that he is on the road to a spiritual healing.

BILL COSBY – HIMSELF (PG, 1983). Bill’s insights on marriage and children highlight this very funny stand-up (and sometimes sit down) concert. Perhaps the funniest bit is his take on a trip to the dentist. I rank this routine right up there with Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s On First.”

THE PREACHER’S WIFE (PG, 1996). An overworked pastor gets help from a classy angel. In some ways it outshines the original, "The Bishop's Wife," especially when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel message (through songs). Whitney Houston is a one-note actress, but for those who like her music, you won’t be disappointed. Denzel Washington is cool, and Courtney B. Vance is exceptional as the neglecting father and husband. Replete with moral teachings concerning marriage, home life, faith, and the fact that we can make a difference.

THE CLIMB (2002) concerns two mountaineers (one black, one white) forced to team up as they ascend Mt. Chicanagua, a dangerous Chilean alp that tempts the most astute of adventurers. With different backgrounds and views on life, their struggle with each other becomes as daunting as the mountain itself. What impressed me most was the script’s delicate inclusion of the Gospel message. From World Wide Pictures, it’s an outdoor adventure that reveals an innate need for Christ’s salvation.

THE ROSA PARKS STORY (2002). Angela Bassett starred in this made-for-TV movie. A drama based on the life of Rosa Parks, it explores the experiences in Mrs. Parks’ childhood and early adult life that helped shape her philosophy of “quiet strength” that resulted in her historic moment of peaceful defiance on a segregated bus in 1955. This marked the first time Mrs. Parks participated in a screen adaptation of her life. Ms. Bassett gives a multi-dimensional performance as a dedicated wife and Christian woman who took a stand against an insidious evil -– bigotry and segregation. I have a favorite scene that I wish would have been more fully developed. At one point Mrs. Parks is placed in jail. There are two hardened prostitutes in the cell. At first they are cynical and she is frightened. After the scene changes and then returns to the jail cell, we see the three women praying in a circle. Nothing more is said or made of this wonderful moment. It’s like code. Like the sign of the fish. We know that she has affected these two women and has prayed that they would know Christ. It reminded me that we can affect the lives of others, if only we will remain open to the Holy Spirit. There are several positive messages, including teaching from the Bible, praying for others, the lead has a humble spirit, and some whites are portrayed as helping blacks to right the wrongs of racial prejudice. It’s an absorbing production.

HUSTLE & FLOW (R, 2005) Though it contains an honest view of impoverished and dispirited street life, complete with profane language and crime as a prosaic existence, this is a powerful morality play and has a great deal to say about our society and finding your dream.  It's also an honest depiction of social ills that never seem to be resolved.  That said, writer/director Craig Brewer never forgets the first obligation of a filmmaker – to entertain. While the audience has to be subjected to some harsh content, it is completely engrossing, with a tender mix of tragedy and hope. The main character has a depth and sincerity, and is well acted by Terrence Howard. Indeed, every character is three dimensional, fascinating and movingly portrayed. It’s easy to look at pimps and drug dealers as merely soulless thugs. But are they really completely lost? Are their souls truly dead? This movie awakened me to something (or more likely, it was the Holy Spirit that used this movie to awaken me). From now on whenever troubled souls are seen on the nightly news or roaming the streets as I pass by, I will remember that Christ died for them as well as for me.

TSOTSI (R, 2005) traces six days in the life of a young gang leader who steals a woman’s car – unaware, in his panic, that her baby is in the back seat. A gritty contemporary portrait of ghetto life set amidst the sprawling Johannesburg townships, this affecting story is ultimately a redemptive tale of hope and the triumph of love over rage. It’s a parable, a story about the seeking and finding of redemption. Though this young thug is full of rage and insecurity, enough to beat up an ally, threaten an old man in a wheelchair and shoot a hijack victim, he is mysteriously moved by this infant. And the longer he is around the baby, the more he opens up his heart. He even comes to an awareness of the need for forgiveness and salvation. I won’t give the ending away, but the last shot is a symbolic illustration of a man surrendering his life. We know as we leave the theater that a miraculous change has occurred and we realize on the drive home that indeed, “A child shall lead them.”

AKEELAH AND THE BEE (PG, 2006) Smartly written, uplifting and charming, a great film about a young girl participating in a national spelling bee, the film reminds viewers of the obligation we have concerning the maintenance of language. The film has several positive messages, including caring and sacrificing for others. It also reminds each of us that while there are dark valleys we must go through on our travels through life, green pastures also lay ahead.