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Black History Month: Cinematic Perspectives

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While February has been slated as the only time to celebrate the history of African-American culture, we feel that all cultures should be celebrated regardless of what month it is as this rich diversity encapsulates all of American history. There are scores of films that have embraced all aspects of African American culture, so narrowing it down has been a difficult task. Sure there are some glaring omissions as it’s impossible to include everything, but this is a combination of the famous and the obscure, all of which are important from a cinematic and cultural perspective.

Putney Swope (Robert Downey, 1969)[amazonify]B000FUF7DK::text::::Putney Swope[/amazonify] (Robert Downey, 1969)
Downey’s twisted cult classic remains powerfully relevant. When the Chairman of an ad agency suddenly dies, the board inadvertently appoints Putney Swope, its only black member as his replacement. What follows is a zany and bizarre satire of militant rhetoric, advertising and the white power structure as the agency is renamed Truth and Soul, and all the white employees are sacked, except for one token white guy. Filmed in sumptuous black and white, the film ingeniously intersperses a series of hilarious commercials in bold color. Incredibly daring for its time in terms of its sexual and political content, Putney Swope pushed the envelope and set a standard for independent cinema in the 1970s.

Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992)[amazonify]B0006J28L4::text::::Malcolm X[/amazonify] (Spike Lee, 1992)
Denzel Washington should have won the Academy Award for his extraordinary portrayal of the civil rights leader. Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X and taking many years to come to fruition, director Norman Jewison was originally attached to the project, yet Lee was vocal about how only a black filmmaker could tell this story. Jewison handed the project over to Lee, who then faced studio interference and budgetary restrictions. With support from celebrities such as Prince, Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey among many others, Lee was able to complete his cut of the film. Washington powerfully captures Malcolm’s passion as well as his internal struggles with racism and identity, in what is, without question, his greatest performance; an engrossing portrait of a man who remains one of the most important figures in American history.

[amazonify]B000BNTME6::text::::Hallelujah![/amazonify] (King Vidor, 1929)
Filmed on location in Tennessee and Arkansas, Hallelujah! was one of the first talkies by a major studio to feature an African American cast. Noted for its use of experimenting with live, on-location sound, in addition to its musical sequences Hallelujah! explores the troubled life of a sharecropper and attempts to portray a positive, non-stereotypical treatment of African-American culture; it was considered at the time to be revolutionary in American cinema. The DVD features extensive commentary by cultural scholars Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton, as well as some rare musical shorts from the 1930s.

Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974)[amazonify]B0001Z4OXS::text::::Blazing Saddles[/amazonify] (Mel Brooks, 1974)
One of the funniest films ever made. Fully aware of its ability to offend, Blazing Saddles is crude, obnoxious, achingly silly, bold and brazen; it pushes the envelope and then some. After attacking the foreman on a railroad, dazzling urbanite Bart (Cleavon Little) is set to be executed, but is instead appointed Sheriff of the peaceful, racist town of Rock Ridge (where everyone’s last name is Johnson), which is slated for destruction by corrupt political boss Hedley Lamarr (the great Harvey Korman). By satirizing racial stereotypes and featuring a fair share of great jokes as well as bad ones, Blazing Saddles is classic entertainment cleverly filled with pop culture anachronisms and stylistic techniques such as having the characters break the fourth wall.

King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis (Sidney Lumet / Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1970)
This powerful documentary on the career of Dr. King utilizes a plethora of newsreel footage. Running just over three hours, it featured onscreen commentary by Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Ben Gazzara, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Anthony Quinn, Clarence Williams III, and Joanne Woodward. The film received critical acclaim as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. It was originally screened as a one time only event on March 24, 1970 in roughly 600 theaters throughout the US. Over the years, the film has been shown very rarely (in some cases only on late night television), usually in a truncated version that excised the celebrity commentary, yet it has recently been released on DVD in a commemorative edition.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1970)[amazonify]B004LY8QCK::text::::Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song[/amazonify] (Melvin Van Peebles, 1970)
“Rated X by an all-white jury” and Dedicated to “Brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man,” Van Peebles wrote, produced, scored and directed this independent feature, documenting the plight of an African-American man on the run from white persecutors. Van Peebles funded the film himself, with the assistance of a loan from Bill Cosby, since no studio would produce the film. Stylistic and avant-garde Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was originally screened in only two theaters, yet, managed to gross $4.1 million at the box office. It received positive reviews from some critics, and became required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party after Huey Newton raved about its anti-establishment message. Aside from some controversy over its content, the film has been cited as a major influence on many filmmakers. The 2003 film Baadasssss! documents the making of the film and was directed by Melvin’s son Mario.

Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977) [amazonify]B000VEA3MU::text::::Killer of Sheep[/amazonify] (Charles Burnett, 1977)
A remarkable achievement of independent cinema, Killer of Sheep has received unanimous critical acclaim, despite being out of circulation for decades. In a Brechtian series of vignettes, this ambitious character study focuses on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) whose work in a slaughterhouse in the Watts district of Los Angeles affects his home life with his wife and children. Shot on a budget of under $10,000 during 1972-1975, Burnett submitted the film as his MFA thesis at the UCLA Film School in 1977. After receiving the Critics’ Award at the Berlin Film Festival and comparisons to the work of Rossellini, Ozu, Kubrick, Cassavetes, Altman, and Renoir, Killer of Sheep was held from distribution due to complications in securing the music rights for its soundtrack. The music rights were finally purchased in 2007, after which the film was restored and released on DVD.

[amazonify]B0000CNY4M::text::::Odds Against Tomorrow[/amazonify] (Robert Wise, 1959)
Part social commentary and film noir, this underrated classic documents the machinations of a motley crew involved in an upstate NY bank heist. Harry Belafonte was the first African-American actor to receive top billing in a film noir as a jazz musician trying to keep his family together, while owing a substantial gambling debt to the mob. Teamed up with hardcore racist Robert Ryan, the two have a tense relationship as their immense dislike for one another threatens to jeopardize the heist. Filmed on location in coarse back and white, this is a tense, gripping drama that hasn’t lost its potency. An interesting side note: Robert Ryan was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement, yet was usually cast as a cruel, mean-spirited villain throughout his career. During a screening of Odds Against Tommorow, he spoke openly with African-American journalists about the dichotomy he personally encountered playing such reprehensible characters.

[amazonify]B0006IIOHC::text::::The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman[/amazonify] (John Korty, 1974)
Based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, this television film presents the African-American experience as told by Jane Pittman (Cicely Tyson), a 110-year-old woman who recounts her childhood as a young slave girl during the Civil War. This episodic tale focuses on her freedom, and the struggles that freed slaves encountered in the south after emancipation, all culminating with her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. The recipient of numerous Emmy Awards, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman has been shown in schools for decades. The film is also notable for Stan Winston and Rick Baker’s incredible makeup depicting Jane’s transformation over the years.

Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971)[amazonify]0790743752::text::::Shaft[/amazonify] (Gordon Parks, 1971)
Gritty, violent, and featuring elements of film noir, Shaft revolutionized the detective drama. It was also instrumental in spearheading the blaxploitation genre and made Richard Roundtree a star. John Shaft redefined ‘cool.’ He didn’t take shit from anyone, yet also depicted a human side and a sense of humor. Featuring a soundtrack by Isaac Hayes (who won an Academy Award for his score), the theme song from this film has been ingrained into our consciousness for decades.

Eldridge Cleaver: Black Panther (William Klein, 1970)
While in Algeria documenting the Pan-African Cultural Festival, William Klein shot this portrait of Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information of the Black Panther Party, former presidential candidate and author of the legendary Soul on Ice, who at the time was wanted for murder in the US. Klein’s little seen documentary incorporates newsreel footage as well as heated interviews with Cleaver, who ruminates in his trademark, guerilla style on racism in America, the Vietnam War and the American Black Power movement.

[amazonify]0800177967::text::::Glory[/amazonify] (Edward Zwick, 1989)
A moving and inspirational film, Glory tells the true story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first units in the US Army comprised entirely of African-American men. Starring Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington, Glory has been considered one of the most historically accurate films about the Civil War. The 54th was initially used for manual labor, yet they managed to fight in several skirmishes, prior to their assault on Fort Wagner, SC on July 18, 1863, in which approximately 270 members of the unit were killed. Glory received universal acclaim from critics and won Academy Awards for Denzel Washington for Best Supporting Actor, as well as awards for Best Cinematography and Best Sound.

Jasper, Texas (Jeffrey W. Byrd, 2003) [amazonify]B0000TSR10::text::::Jasper, Texas[/amazonify] (Jeffrey W. Byrd, 2003)
The investigation into the murder of James Byrd, Jr. who was viciously dragged to his death by three white supremacists in 1993 is the focus of this emotional TV drama. Almost immediately, this small town was thrust into the national spotlight over the crime, emphasizing the state of race relations in America. The film intricately depicts the relationship of black mayor R.C. Horn (Louis Gossett, Jr.) and white sheriff Billy Rowles (Jon Voight), both of whom are unprepared with the negative publicity of the case and how the town itself deals with the worldwide media attention to this disturbing murder.

[amazonify]B000053V7G::text::::4 Little Girls[/amazonify] (Spike Lee, 1997)
Produced in conjunction with HBO, this searing documentary covers the events of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, in which four young girls were killed. The explosion occurred just one week after schools were integrated in Birmingham, and created a National outrage and drew more media attention to the civil rights struggle, eventually spearheading the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Through interviews with family members, friends as well as public figures such as George Wallace and Walter Cronkite, Lee gives these children a voice and draws powerful insight as to how one horrific incident can spark so much outrage.

In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967)[amazonify]B000XJD34I::text::::In the Heat of the Night[/amazonify] (Norman Jewison, 1967)
This gritty crime drama involves an African-American police detective (Sidney Poitier) from Philadelphia who inadvertently becomes involved in a murder investigation in a small town in Mississippi. The film examines the civil rights struggle, race relations, and how the detective and the local Police Chief (Rod Steiger), despite their at times heated interactions, eventually develop respect for one another. One of the film’s most notable scenes involves Poitier being slapped by a white man he’s questioning, followed by him immediately slapping him back. In The Heat Of The Night won several Academy Awards including Best Picture, and Best Actor for Steiger, who personally thanked Poitier and declared “We Shall Overcome” in his acceptance speech.

–Dave Bower is Co-Publisher of The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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, Lake George Region (Warren County), Lake Placid, Saratoga, Schenectady, Troy

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