Screens & Tech
Black History Month: Some of the most important black films ever made
Published: February 15, 2012
Black film (or films dealing with black reality) didn't start with '70s blaxploitation. There was black film in the early part of the 20th century, and not just any film: Oscar Micheaux tackled race issues almost a century before the advent of Melvin Van Pebbles, Spike Lee, and John Singleton. Yet, the majority of those films are typically left behind in most film histories and re-releases, so all we're left with generally comes from the '60s on. The good thing is that there's still plenty of great flicks to choose from, and the following represent my personal take on black films that you need to see, by any means necessary.
1. When We Were Kings
(1996, dir. Leon Gast)
In 1974, Muhammad Ali became the first man in history to win the heavyweight title three times by knocking out favorite George Foreman in Zaire's "Rumble in the Jungle." This movie shows you the build-up leading to the fight and the fight itself, but it is much more than that — it is a stunning document of black pride. Not only did Ali upset Foreman: he stole the movie as well. "I'm gonna let everybody know that that thing you got on your head is a phony, and it comes from the tail of a pony!," he told Howard Cosell, one of the many people at ringside who didn't give Ali a chance and was forced to eat his words later.
2. Do the Right Thing
(1989, dir. Spike Lee)
Spike Lee's first masterpiece takes place on the hottest day of the year in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn. Lee slowly builds up his examination of race relations and makes the movie explode into a riot. Instead of tailing off with a "back to normalcy" ending, he added two quotes that had people leaving the theater arguing with one another. "Violence ends by defeating itself," read Martin Luther King's quote. "It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers." The quote was followed by one by Malcolm X. "I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence." An explosive, ambiguous ending for an explosive film that was at number 96 on the American Film Institute's list of best all-time American movies.
3. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
(2006, dir. Spike Lee)
If you thought Hurricane Katrina was a bad thing, wait till you see this eight-hour documentary — the reality of it was much, much worse.
4. Malcolm X
(1992, dir. Spike Lee)
Denzel Washington should have won his second Oscar for his portrayal of Malcolm X, one of the most complex and misunderstood personalities in American history. An epic film that a stubborn Lee was able to finish his way despite Universal suggesting the Mecca scenes be filmed in the Arizona desert. Now available in Blu-ray.
5. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
(1967, dir. Stanley Kramer)
An early masterpiece about interracial marriage and race relations, with a superb performance by a star-studded cast. But Spencer Tracy sent the movie home with a memorable speech towards the end. "The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel, for each other," he said. "And if it's half of what we felt — that's everything." Despite feeling at times dated, with Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier on board, this is as powerful and real as it gets.
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