The recent Best Motion Picture win by the exquisite Moonlight and the strong presence of black American films in this year’s Academy Awards (films such as Hidden Figures and Fences commanded many nominations this year) inspire us to take a look at essential films on the black American experience. Our list looks something like this:
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989): This gem begins with a short dance sequence in which one of the protagonists, a young woman played by Rosie Perez, performs a boxing/dance routine to arguably THE most powerful rap song ever written (Fight the Power by Public Enemy).
Rosie wears various outfits in her dance, including full boxing gear, gloves included. Her performance is an incredible symbol of the fighting spirit of young black Americans (and other ethnic minorities) in Brooklyn in the late 1980s.
The underlying dilemma presented by the film is the Malcolm X – Martin Luther King debate. How can African American people move forward? Through conflict or peace? Brilliant, colourful, dynamic, this film is one of my top ten pictures of all time.
It was shocking (and reflective of the attitudes of the Academy at the time) that the film was nominated for only two Academy Awards – Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor.
Its lack of recognition (despite receiving incredible reviews worldwide from critics of the highest standing) showed that many of the themes it touched upon were sadly too close for comfort.
Malcolm X (1992, Spike Lee): This epic biographical film centres on the life of slain civil rights leader, Malcolm X, highlighting the darker side of Malcolm’s past, including his activity as a hustler. Malcolm’s father was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, his mother was declared insane and he was raised by foster parents.
While in prison, a vision of Elijah Muhammad came to him and he converted to Islam. At the end of his life, he embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca, a powerful experience which led him to renounce separatism and to embrace all races. A powerful film about a most extraordinary man.
Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins): The parallels between Moonlight and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), completely won me over from the first moments of the film. It reflects the slick sophistication of writer and director, Barry Jenkins, who took inspiration from many aspects of his own life, to tell us the story of ‘Little’ Chiron, whom we meet at three different points of his life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Chiron’s mom is a crack addict and the only good influence in his life is, ironically, a crack dealer who gives him food and shelter. As ‘Little’ becomes a teen, he discovers a strong attraction for his best friend and experiences a moment that will mark him for the rest of his life. As an adult, Chiron has serious social problems but continues to crave shelter and love without knowing how to express this need.
Moonlight is highly reminiscent of The 400 Blows because of the subtle, non-manipulative approach it takes, and the way it highlights universal emotions through a series of defining moments in one boy’s life.
4 Boys ‘N The Hood (John Singleton, 1991): The debut work by talented director John Singleton pulls us into the eye of the hurricane: Crenshaw, South Central Los Angeles, where gangs the Crips and the Bloods regularly take each other out in mass gang shootings. Most interesting, perhaps, is the character of Tre, caught between his loyalty to his friends and his desire to break free from the gang lifestyle.
Even characters like Ricky, smart enough to win a scholarship to an Ivy League university, have little escape in a town where if the rival gang doesn’t get you, the cops will. As the enigmatic character Doughboy (played by NWA’s Ice Cube) says, most of America “don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” Thanks to John Singleton, we discover the underbelly of the most powerful nation in the world.
5 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013): This is the most realistic version of black slavery to make it to the big screen; it is the true to life account of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold as a slave in 1841.
The amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup, a man of great integrity whose eyes serve as our telescope into one of the most brutal eras in human history.
This was the first film by an African American Director to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, but those who are acquainted with black films know, it is but one of many greats. Let’s end this with the hashtag, #Oscarsowhite
Words Marisa Cutillas