Thinking of movies to feature during Black History Month was tougher than I thought it would be. Of course there are quality documentaries and historical pieces to watch, but in thinking of feature films unfortunately a lot of stereotypes and exclusions still exist. And in looking closer at some of my favorites that deal with black history, it is amazing to me how often the main character is white, and is in a role that is the “hero”, while the black characters are the “victims”. Maybe some of these historical films are a reflection of how things were, but I still find it bothersome. For instance, in Glory – you have a white man leading the Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company. In Cadillac Records – owner and record producer Leonard Chess treats the performers (Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Etta James) like members of his family and tries to take care of them. The Help – the story isn’t so much of the lives of the maids as it is of the white journalist’s interest in their stories. And even those set in more recent times: Blood Diamond – Even though black African Solomon Vandy’s struggle is an integral part of the story, the movie centers around the white diamond smuggler, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. And in The Blind Side – it’s a white woman nobly helping the much less-fortunate black youth. It could be that I’m reading too much into these things, but it would be nice to see fewer movies with blacks as “victims”.
Another pet peeve of mine is that you hardly ever see interracial romances, especially between black men and white women. Will Smith & Denzel Washington are two of Hollywood’s powerhouses, but are rarely cast in romantic roles. In fact, both have played lead characters in movies based on books in which the characters were involved in romances, but those romances were written out of the movie versions. And if there is an interracial romance, either race plays a pivotal role and is a big issue (such as in “O”, “Jungle Fever”, “Something New”, “Save the Last Dance”, and “Guess Who”), or a Latina actress is cast opposite the black actor (think Eva Mendes/Will Smith – Hitch; Eva Mendes/Denzel Washington – Training Day). I would love Hollywood (and America) to get to the point where actors and actresses are cast in roles without any regard to the color of their skin. One movie that did this is especially relevant this week. “The Bodyguard’s” romance between Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner caused a bit of a stir when it came out, but I appreciated that race wasn’t an issue or even mentioned in the movie. I especially liked one of Costner’s quotes in regard to the final scene:
“I kissed her once for everybody in America, and I kissed her once for myself.”
So, what are some good movies to watch for Black History Month? These are some of my picks:
- Roots – This groundbreaking TV movie opened a lot of eyes to the horrors of slavery.
- Love & Basketball – One of my favorite movies, this on-again/off-again romance between neighbors features talented actors Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, and Alfre Woodard (and it has a great soundtrack!).
- The Color Purple – The classic film follows the life of Celie, a young black girl growing up in the early 1900′s.
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (along with other Sidney Poitier films including A Raisin in the Sun, Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, and To Sir, With Love) – A landmark film, it features an interracial couple (Katherine Hepburn and the impeccable Sidney Poitier) going home to meet her family. Guess Who starring Ashton Kutcher & Bernie Mac is the updated version of this classic.
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Another classic, this one looks at the racism and prejudices of society; when a young black man is accused of raping a white woman a lawyer takes the case even though the man’s fate is already sealed.
- Glory – Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for his role in this story of the first African American Army unit in the Civil War. No matter how many times I watch it, the scene with him shuffling back into camp to be whipped for “deserting” never fails to make me teary-eyed. (Also check out his other films, especially Man on Fire, Malcolm X, Remember the Titans and The Great Debaters).
- Do the Right Thing (and others by Spike Lee, such as Crooklyn)
- Akeelah and the Bee – A heart-warming story of a young girl from South Los Angeles trying to make it the National Spelling Bee. I found the methods they used for practicing spelling and word origins fascinating!
- Tyler Perry’s movies including Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Why Did I Get Married – Love him or just shake your head at him, my daughter and I get a kick out of Perry’s “Madea”, and enjoy most of his other movies as well.
- Hoop Dreams – A documentary that follows the lives of two inner-city youth and their struggle to become college basketball players on the road to going professional.
- The Tuskegee Airmen — True story of the black flyers who broke the color barrier in the U.S. Air Force during World War II (it’s actually been quite a while since I saw this one, but I think I liked it. I’m anxious to see the updated version, Red Tails, with Terrence Howard).
Which movies would you include on a Black History Month “must-see” list? Which of these do you disagree with? Please share your thoughts on black film roles, then and now.