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.

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.

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.

Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier. The subject is interracial marriage. A bit dated, but the movie has three outstanding performances from three of my favorite actors.

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. It advances the importance of family and biblical teachings.

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.

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)
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.

When his father becomes ill, the young R&B star (Boris Kodjoe) returns home and comes face to face with his beliefs, and, ultimately, himself. Concerning the transformative power of faith and forgiveness, THE GOSPLE is a contemporary drama packed with soaring, soulful music.

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’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.”

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.

Angela Bassett starred in this 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. 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.

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, he is mysteriously moved by this infant. 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. 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.”

Smartly written, this charming film concerns a young girl participating in a national spelling bee. 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.

Along with the list above, here are several past and present films, plus a future hopeful, that serve double duty. They entertain – and they teach. A few are quite old, but don’t let that detour you from viewing them. These filmmakers paved the way, not just making strides in black cinema, but for cinema in general. Plus, their pioneering spirit led to a better understanding between races.

Daniel L. Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney. A Southern cotton-picker becomes a preacher, while struggling with his human foibles. Corny at times, but still effective, with several musical sequences based on biblical parables.

This is an amazing documentary that plays more like a scripted drama than an investigative newsreel. Caution, it is rated PG-13 for language.

Documentary of the classic heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. PG (images of violence, brief nudity and some language).

SHAFT (1971)
Now, I’m not recommending the film. It is justly rated R for language, violence and sexuality. I merely mention this one because Richard Roundtree broke ground as one of the first – if not the first – black men playing the cool private detective. He’s bad news for corrupt whites, but he’s not anti-white, he’s anti-bad. And you gotta love that theme song by Isaac Hayes. “I’m talking about Shaft – and we can dig it.”

Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. This engaging fable concerns faith and devotion. Ingratiating performance by Waters, with several moving musical numbers.

Marc Connelly, Rex Ingram, Eddie Anderson. Elderly Southern blacks tell unique and profound versions of Old Testament parables.

Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte star in this incisive melodrama based on Bizet’s opera Carmen. Like Opera?

Disappointing film about racial struggle in the West Indies, but nice performances from cast, including the divine Dorothy Dandridge.

Again, not a great film, but a trailblazer with an exceptional cast that included Lena Horne, Bill Bojangles Robinson and Cab Calloway. Ms. Horne singing the title song – hard to beat.

A literate script presents a determined widow (Sally Field) bent on saving her farm during the '30s Depression. Contains perhaps the greatest ending to a film this buff has ever seen. A repentant adulterer is finally forgiven when his wife, moved by the pastor's sermon, takes her husband's hand during the service, signifying the restoring of a relationship through Christ's love. Just as we put our hankies away after that moving moment, another symbolic healing occurs. I won't give that one away. Trust me, it's powerful! Rated PG (some mild language, implied adulterous affair – but it furthers the story and it is not explicit). Not really a “black” film, per say, but Danny Glover helps give the piece authority and dimension.

GLORY (1989)
Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman. Fascinating telling of the first unit of black solders to fight in the Civil War. Alas, it’s replete with R-rated content, but it has an award-worthy depiction of the sacrifice of both blacks and whites.

Danny Glover. Comedy/drama. PG (several obscenities). Eerie tale of a mysterious man who subtly manipulates family and friends.

BOYZ “N” THE HOOD (1991)
Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, Angela Bassett, Nia Long, Cuba Gooding, Jr. Gripping tale of three boys growing up in a south-central L.A. neighborhood. This is perhaps John Singleton’s best work, as he presents a father trying to guide his son through ignorance and aimlessness by steering him with positive values. Caution, this is an R-rated film filled with harsh language and violent depictions. But nothing seems exploitive. The film portrays a life many are trapped in, yet gives hope, revealing that the way out is found within.

Lindsay Haun, Carl Lumbly, Penny Johnson, Shadia Simmons. This teen-aimed drama first aired on the Disney Channel. In 1977, African American Congressman Ron V. Dellums and his family opened their home to a South African exchange student. Expecting a student of color, they were surprised when a white South African arrived, but no more so than the girl, a product of the apartheid system of the time, who viewed black people as second-class citizens. The situation challenged them all with valuable lessons about racism and tolerance. This is a very thoughtful, well-acted, and effective TV-movie that examines prejudice, and how getting to know one another can defeat it. Each performance is affecting, but the film’s driving force rests squarely on the shoulders of its two central figures, Piper Dellums, the young daughter of the African-American Congressman, played by Shadia Simmons, and Lindsey Haun as Mahree Bok, the white exchange student, who is at first shocked to find that her host family is black. Both girls give meaningful portrayals that question the psychological condition of parts of the world. They give honest, real characterizations of two young women with a view of life shaped by their upbringing and the culture that surrounds them.

PRIDE (2007)
Based on true events, the PG-rated film tells of an African American swim coach who recruits troubled teens onto a Philadelphia swim team. The gifted Terrence Howard stars as Jim Ellis, a concerned man who affected lives with his determination and caring spirit.

Phil Boatwright is celebrating his 27th year as a reviewer and film historian.