FROM MICHEAUX TO MORRISON
Literary Adaptations to Film
At the beginning of the twentieth century, black representation in film consisted largely of stereotypes that distorted the black experience and were shaped by the sentimental racism of American culture as well as the more overt racism of society reflected by prominent early directors and filmmakers like D. W. Griffith, who turned Thomas Dixon's The Clansman into a masterpiece of bigotry. The early black independent filmmakers, particularly Noble Johnson and Oscar Micheaux, struggled to counter the demeaning portrayals with more realistic images of black Americans, often drawn from literature by black writers. In their black-produced and black-cast movies, these race filmmakers created an alternate set of cultural referents and established new character types and situations that challenged conventional racist representations of blackness. But these noteworthy advances were arrested and the burgeoning black film industry slowed by a number of unfortunate events, including underfinancing, high production costs, poor distribution, increased competition from big studios, and the Depression.
Hollywood's early sound films of the 1930s and 1940s, which included popular plantation sagas like Gone With the Wind, jungle and African-themed films like King Kong and Tarzan, and black-cast Jim Crow musicals like The Green Pastures, rehashed many of the standard and stereotypical elements of earlier silent productions. Virtually all of these films reinforced racial myths by betraying a nostalgia for the happy old days and promoting racial segregation that suggested blacks belonged among their own kind-but always, of course, under the guiding hand of whites.
The Second World War helped to heighten racial consciousness as pressure developed within American society to rectify racial inequalities. The government and the movie industry collaborated on black wartime tribute films; the "New Negro" began making his way to the screen in Hollywood productions like the movie adaptation of Ellen Glasgow's In This Our Life; and postwar agreements between the studios and the NAACP forced Hollywood to reconsider some of its more blatant stereotyping. The racial and social message films of the postwar period, particularly the crucial 1949 cycle of films that included Pinky and Intruder in the Dust, helped to liberalize black racial imagery. These "problem pictures" also paved the way for another new black character type, the integrationist hero played by Sidney Poitier, who for almost two decades would dominate Hollywood mainstream cinema. But as the Eisenhower era gave rise to the age of black power, other types appeared: the emerging militant in A Raisin in the Sun and Dutchman; the sensitive young protagonist coming of age in The Learning Tree, Sounder, and Go Tell It on the Mountain; the self-confident action hero in Cotton Comes to Harlem and other "blaxploitation" movies such as Shaft.
By the final decades of the twentieth century, as blacks had started to move more fully into politics, entertainment, and society at large, Hollywood, too, tried to promote the notion of black assimilation, often by projecting images of racial harmony through its biracial buddy movies or by portraying the struggles for civil rights, although usually from a white rather than a black perspective. By contrast, the films of the new wave of black directors, including Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Mario Van Peebles, and the host of important films and telefilms adapted from the works of contemporary writers shattered cinematic formulas and demonstrated the existence of a growing market-among black as well as white audiences-for movies that featured black characters.
Pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux determined to present "the race . . . in the light and background of [its] true state" and "raise [black] people to greater heights." Over the course of the century, some of the most interesting and sympathetic representations of ethnic life derived from literature by authors like Paul Laurence Dunbar in the 1910s and 1920s; Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson in the 1930s and 1940s; Richard Wright in the 1950s; Lorraine Hansberry, Chester Himes, Ernest Gaines, and Gordon Parks, Sr. in the 1960s and 1970s; Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor in the 1980s; and Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison in the 1990s. And not only black film but the whole of American cinema is that much richer for the efforts of filmmakers and writers from Micheaux to Morrison.
Dr. Barbara Tepa Lupack
THE BIRTH OF A NATION
David W. Griffith Corporation, 1915
Adapted from Thomas F. Dixon Jr.'s best-selling novel and play The Clansman, D. W. Griffith's controversial The Birth of a Nation, or The Clansman, was the first important full-length film to depict the image of the brutal, villainous black and to establish many of the other racist stereotypes that would be imitated by filmmakers for years to come.
The panoramic sweep of Dixon's "true story" of American history from the glory of the antebellum South to the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan clearly appealed to Griffith, a Southerner whose own historical vision was equally distorted. After six weeks of rehearsal, nine weeks of filming, and three months in editing, The Birth of a Nation premiered in New York.
Unlike his earlier cruder shorts about "faithful and right-thinking Negroes," Griffith's spectacle-filmed on a budget of $100,000-was a polished, well-edited, and well-lit masterwork with an unprecedented running time of two-and-a-half hours.
A technical genius in filmmaking, Griffith utilized numerous innovations such as cross-cutting, close-up and fade-out shots, iris shots, and split screens to create stunning images and thrilling battle and chase sequences (including a harrowing seven-minute-long scene of the attempted rape by a former slave of a young white woman, who commits suicide to escape his advances). But the film's portrait of Southern life under the postwar "new Negro leadership," in which chicken-eating, whiskey-chugging, sexually aggressive blacks try to steal the property of white citizens and keep them from the ballot boxes, was poisonously racist. Only by forming the Ku Klux Klan, the film suggested, could the whites prevail over the renegade blacks and restore the natural order (symbolized by Griffith's final allegorical shot, of Christ ascending into Heaven after having vanquished the God of War).
The Birth of a Nation was a tremendous commercial success: by the end of 1915 alone, an estimated six percent of the American population, including President Woodrow Wilson, had seen the film. Yet it generated enormous controversy and drew wide protest, from the recently-formed NAACP and other civic and religious groups nationwide. Nonetheless, The Birth of a Nation continued to attract moviegoers and enjoyed numerous revivals. (Notoriously, it also became a recruiting tool for the Klan.) An artistic triumph, the film is still considered a masterpiece of filmmaking today.
SON OF TARZAN
National Film Corporation, 1920
Almost as popular as Hollywood's sentimentalized tales of plantation life in the Old South were jungle or tribal films with African settings, most of which reinforced the familiar stereotypes of blacks as primitives and distorted aspects of black and black-African culture. Typically associated with gorillas and the other wild beasts that surrounded them, African natives on screen spoke a ludicrous language of mishmashed words. It was up to the white man to introduce the savages to civilization-and ultimately subservience, even bondage-through religion or science.
Tarzan of the Apes (1918), based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was the first silent film to bring the legendary character to the screen. A host of sequels soon followed, including Son of Tarzan (1920), in which Tarzan's son Jack (or Korak, to the apes) is kidnapped by Tarzan's old enemy Paulovich, as well as a variety of generic movies such as The Jungle Trail (1919).
Revived by the sound film Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932), the Tarzan craze gave rise to another round of Tarzan films and imitators, like the short Kid 'n Africa (1932), in which Shirley Temple, playing an African missionary, is captured by tiny cannibals and rescued from the pot by "Diaperzan," and the bizarre Africa Speaks English (1933), with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
Burroughs' work had a historical basis in nineteenth-century explorations, which stirred Americans' curiosity about native peoples. Yet Burroughs' theme was unmistakably racist: even in the jungle where he is raised, Tarzan, the white man, is able to use its lore to greater effect than the natives.
UNCLE TOM'S CABIN
Universal Pictures, 1927
Uncle Tom first appeared in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel of protest against the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that enforced the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Stowe's Tom suffered tremendous hardships but remained faithful to God as well as to his own principles; and his martyrdom, precipitated by his refusal to betray another slave, was as redemptive as it was tragic. The ubiquitous "Tom shows,"e first American sound version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, directed for Showtime by black director Stan Lathan and starring Avery Brooks and Phylicia Rashad, did not appear until 1987.)
THE JAZZ SINGER
Vitaphone/Warner Brothers, 1927
For its first synchronous sound and spoken film, or "talkie," Hollywood looked not to black actors or entertainers but to an enduring, if antiquated, aspect of black American popular culture.
The Jazz Singer, based on "The Day of Atonement" (1922), a short story by Samson Raphaelson adapted to Broadway in 1925, starred white singer Al Jolson as Jakie Rabinowitz, a cantor's son who chooses assimilation over his family's faith but is ultimately reconciled with his dying father. For his big premiere on Broadway in the climax of the film, Jakie-now "Jack Robin"-appears as a so-called Mammy singer and performs a vulgarized minstrel-type blackface act (which included Jolson's signature song, "My Mammy").
The device of showcasing music within the context of a musical show, especially the "Tom shows" based on Uncle Tom's Cabin and similar black-oriented entertainments, was a natural for movies, since it permitted a maximum of singing with a minimal story line. But The Jazz Singer managed to empty Jolson's "pathetic figure in blackface" of its iconic suffering and to focus instead on the Jewish dilemma of integration and intermarriage.
Jolson went on to reprise his blackface role from The Jazz Singer in another hit film, The Singing Fool (1928). And the blackface minstrelsy tradition-whose absurdity was already apparent, even on stage-was further ritualized in a corrupted form and carried into the 1930s with films such as Big Boy (1930) and Wonder Bar (1934), both based on Jolson's Broadway performances, and with similarly naïve and sentimental films such as Mammy (1930) and Swanee River (1939).
Micheaux Pictures Corporation, 1931
In a career that spanned almost thirty years, Oscar Micheaux became the most successful early black independent film producer and the first black film auteur. Micheaux's films, however, were not technically brilliant.
Forced to work on very tight budgets, he had to shoot scenes in the homes or offices of his friends and in empty, outdated studios. He would rent equipment by the day. Retakes were a luxury he could not afford, and editing was minimal. In some of his films, in fact, he can be overheard whispering dialogue to his actors. Even Micheaux's later films rarely cost more than $20,000 to produce. (By contrast, D. W. Griffith produced The Birth of a Nation in 1915 for $100,000; and the 1927 Carl Laemmle major studio production of Uncle Tom's Cabin, directed by Harry A. Pollard, was budgeted at $2,000,000.)
Yet in most cases, the Micheaux feature was far superior to those of other black independent film companies and even to many of the "race films" by white independent producers, largely because Micheaux took the familiar Hollywood script and gave it a distinctly racial slant. Committed to "racial uplift," he adapted many of his films from his own novels and cast black characters in non-stereotypical roles-as farmers, oil men, explorers, professors, Broadway producers, and Secret Service agents.
A milestone in American film history, The Exile (1931) was the first all-black-cast independently produced "talkie" (or sound film). Based on Micheaux's autobiographical novel The Conquest (1913), it followed the adventures of Jean Baptiste, an ambitious "decent colored man" who travels to South Dakota to establish his own homestead and falls in love with a woman whom he believes to be white.
The film, which enjoyed a successful run in New York, was censored by the Pennsylvania Board of Censors, which objected to a scene of Baptiste kissing a white woman (who is later revealed to have "Negro blood") and to another scene, eventually cut, of a black man thrashing a white man for ungentlemanly conduct. Although the film generated much controversy, it gave hope to other race filmmakers that black films could compete in the new market of sound movies.
United Artists, 1933
Although Hollywood's African jungle films were at worst blatantly racist and at best distorted or contrived, they did offer occasional employment to many of the finest actors of the day, including Clarence Muse, Dorothy Dandridge, Noble Johnson, Daniel Haynes, and Rex Ingram. But even as brilliant an actor as Paul Robeson found himself frequently typecast in such limiting and often insulting productions.
In Emperor Jones, a critically-hailed film based on Eugene O'Neill's play (which was one of the first important attempts by a white writer to deal with black characters in a serious drama), Robeson successfully re-created his role as antihero Brutus Jones, an American ex-Pullman porter, who-by sheer nerve-becomes emperor of a tropical island, assumes a dictatorship, and is finally killed by the natives.
A commanding black character who is the intellectual and social equal of whites, Jones did not fall into the traditional categories of comic servant or naïve folk type; and Robeson's nuanced portrayal of Jones remains among his most memorable screen performances. Yet, while later films like Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937), Song of Freedom (1937), and King Solomon's Mines (1937) returned Robeson to similarly exotic locales, they failed to offer parts with the same substance or sense of majesty as Emperor Jones (which, amazingly, had been shot in a single week in a studio in Astoria, New York, on a budget of just $10,000).
Robeson accepted some of these roles in the hope that they might foster awareness of racial folk motifs, including native songs and dances; but most of the films were disappointingly formulaic, even imperialistic. Robeson's hopes for engendering major changes in the industry-like those of other actors and activists-were for the most part frustrated.
IMITATION OF LIFE
Universal Pictures, 1934
The first important black-oriented major studio film of the 1930s, Imitation of Life was hailed as a "daring moving picture" that reflected changing social attitudes. Based on the best-selling novel by Fanny Hurst, the film told the story of two poor widows, the white Bea (Claudette Colbert) and the black Delilah (Louise Beavers), who are hard hit by the Depression.
After meeting by accident, they decide to live and raise their daughters together. Delilah's secret pancake recipe soon turns the women into wealthy restauranteurs and allows them to move to an elegant townhouse in Manhattan. Yet it fails to ensure their happiness: Bea's daughter falls in love with her mother's beau, while Delilah's daughter Peola defies racial standards and pretends to be white. Only after the stoic Delilah dies, her heart broken by her daughter's betrayal, does Peola return home to make amends.
The casting of black actress Fredi Washington as a mulatto character was a significant departure from the usual period studio films (in which mulatto roles were played by whites), while Peola's desire for freedom and equal justice struck a responsive note with many black viewers.
The inequities that Peola rebels against are readily apparent in the relationship between her mother and Bea, which reveals much about race relations at the time: although Delilah is solely responsible for the success of the business, she accepts a highly inequitable 20%-80% partnership split and continues working as Bea's "girl," even though she can easily afford her own home. A loyal "auntie" to her darling "missy," Delilah remains as deferential as she is subservient. Yet it is she who teaches the importance of loyalty and family values not only to Peola but also to Bea and her daughter; and her selflessness is honored by the biggest funeral ever seen in Harlem.
The film, an immediate hit with white audiences, was also popular with black moviegoers, who appreciated its innovative, at times subversive approach to contemporary concerns. As one reviewer noted: though much of Imitation of Life "is dreadfully superficial and needlessly sentimental . . . it will really set America to thinking furiously." (The film was re-made less effectively in 1959, with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore as the two widows.)
THE GREEN PASTURES
Warner Brothers, 1936
Although the poor box office showing of the first black-cast musicals Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah in 1929 made the studios reluctant to take a chance on another black Hollywood spectacle, in 1936 Warner Brothers released The Green Pastures, a feature-length all-black musical based on Marc Connelly's long-running Pulitzer Prize-winning play (which was adapted, in turn, from Roark Bradford's collection of Southern sketches, Ol' Man Adam and His Chillun).
It is the story of Mr. Deshee, a kindly old black Sunday school teacher in Louisiana, who makes the Bible stories come alive by transforming the biblical characters into contemporary men and women.
The film included some of the finest actors of the day: Rex Ingram as De Lawd, a patriarchal Jehovah who dresses like a Southern gentleman and passes out good ten-cent "seegars" to his angels; Eddie Anderson as Noah, a good man who finds it hard to resist a taste of tobacco and alcohol; Oscar Polk as Archangel Gabriel, De Lawd's capable but understated assistant; and Ernest Whitman as the sadistic Pharaoh.
By playing multiple roles, the actors created a clever continuity within the stories: Ingram, for example, appeared not only as De Lawd but also as Adam and Hezdrel, while the children in Mr. Deshee's class doubled as heavenly cherubs serenaded by the spirituals of the famous Hall Johnson Choir.
While the white press unanimously hailed the film as a sublime and heartbreaking masterpiece of American folk drama, black audiences rejected its demeaning and stereotypical racial portrayals. (Among the most offensive was the notion of black Heaven as a "big fish fry in the sky.") Nonetheless, The Green Pastures was enormously popular; on opening day at Radio City Music Hall in New York, tickets sold at the rate of 6,000 per hour. Held over for an entire year's run at some theaters, The Green Pastures went on to become one of the most successful black-cast films of all time.
Universal Pictures, 1936
A story of love, intrigue, and betrayal that begins on the Cotton Blossom, one of the famed show boats that traveled up and down the Mississippi in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Show Boat was based on the popular novel by Edna Ferber.
Although it was first filmed in 1929 as a silent and sound picture-that is, as an otherwise silent film that included the occasional song from the Broadway musical play-by Universal Pictures, it was the second version of the film (released by Universal in 1936 and directed by James Whale) that is considered the best.
Irene Dunne starred as Magnolia Hawks, the captain's daughter who longs to appear on stage and who gets her chance when Julie LaVerne, the show's star, is exposed as a mulatto and prohibited from performing. The women's fortunes seem inversely related: as Julie and her white husband are forced to leave the show, Magnolia and her beau (the dashing riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, who becomes her husband) assume the starring roles. But when Ravenal walks out and Magnolia is forced to find work in nightclubs to support herself and her daughter Kim, it is the noble Julie who comes to her aid. Magnolia goes on to become a star and is happily reunited with Ravenal.
What gave the film its poignancy were the performances by Hattie McDaniel as Queenie and Paul Robeson as Joe, the sensitive deck hand who resents white privilege. Robeson's show-stopping rendition of "Ol' Man River" is still immensely powerful today. (The song became Robeson's signature piece, but while he continued to sing it throughout his career, he deliberately changed some of the racist and demeaning lyrics.)
Like the popular cinematic device of showcasing actual musical numbers as a "show within a show," the film also drew on the familiar stereotype of the "tragic mulatto" whose attempt to cross racial and cultural boundaries posed a threat to the social order and raised the titillating specter of interracial sexuality. Notably, the mulatto character was usually played by a white actor or actress; in this version, white stage actress Helen Morgan appeared as Julie.
The 1936 Show Boat was an important production in other ways as well: it saved the financially-strapped Universal studio from receivership. (Show Boat was re-made in 1951, with Ava Gardner in the role of Julie and Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia.)
THE BISCUIT EATER
Paramount Pictures, 1940
Although it would be decades before Hollywood began trying to reinforce the notion of racial harmony throughout the land with its teaming of white and black actors in such popular "buddy movies" as Ghostbusters (1982), 48 Hours (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and the Lethal Weapon sequence, The Biscuit Eater depicted the interracial friendship between two boys.
The youngsters decide to enter their dog Promise in a championship trial for bird dogs, even though he is nothing more than a "biscuit eater" (that is, a dog "too sorry to hunt anything except his own food")-and even though Promise must compete against "Georgia Boy," a thoroughbred dog trained by their fathers, who will likely lose their jobs if Georgia Boy does not win.
Based on James Street's touching short story, The Biscuit Eater was the first film shot entirely on location and the first movie ever filmed in the state of Georgia. Yet its interracial casting of youngsters was not entirely new: in the highly popular "Our Gang" comedies first produced in the 1920s, black and white children often shared adventures and misadventures-although the black Stymie, Sunshine Sammy, Pineapple, Farina, and Buckwheat (derisively named for cereals) usually appeared for comic effect and rarely rose above stereotype in their looks, dress, or speech patterns.
Among the black actors featured in The Biscuit Eater were Fred Toones (who was usually billed simply as "Snowflake") as the character "Sermon," Cordell Hickman as "Text," and Viola Davis as "Aunt Charity." (The Biscuit Eater was re-made in 1971, with Godfrey Cambridge, Beah Richards, Mantan Moreland, and Earl Holliman.)
GO DOWN, DEATH
Sack Amusement Enterprises, 1944
Directed by Spencer Williams, Jr. and produced by his "Harlemwood Studios" as part of an unprecedented ten-year deal with Sack Amusement Enterprises, Go Down, Death was based on a short poem by black writer and social activist James Weldon Johnson.
In the "folk drama," Sister Caroline, a good woman of high morals, dies after trying to frustrate a plot by her foster-son Jim (played by Williams), the owner of a local nightclub, to discredit a new preacher whose sermons are cutting into Jim's business. At Caroline's funeral, the Reverend offers a moving sermon taken almost verbatim from Johnson's poem. Overcome by the voice of his conscience and the graphic images of hellfire it evokes, Jim is soon found dead.
Williams, who is best known for his role as Amos Brown on the old Amos 'n' Andy television series that ran from 1951-53, was a veteran of the movie industry: he began as a call boy to Oscar Hammerstein, learned comedy from legendary black performer Bert Williams, wrote for the Christie Comedies produced by Paramount, and became a popular actor at Paramount and other major studios. One of his earlier films, Son of Ingagi (1940), based on an original story by Williams (who not only wrote the screenplay but also starred in the film), is considered the first horror film with an all-black cast; Williams also acted in a number of pioneering all-black Westerns, including Bronze Buckaroo (1938), Harlem on the Range (1938), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939).
But perhaps Williams' most important work was as an activist who lobbied for more honesty in black film roles and other vital changes in the industry, such as the appointment of "a national Negro censor."
SONG OF THE SOUTH
Walt Disney Pictures, 1946
By the early 1940s, plantation films had fallen out of vogue. Yet in 1946, Walt Disney released Song of the South, a surprisingly regressive film based on the Uncle Remus tales by Joel Chandler Harris and set on a nineteenth-century plantation full of contented slaves and a devoted Mammy named Aunt Tempy (played by the ubiquitous Mammy, Hattie McDaniel).
Old Uncle Remus (James Baskett) tells uplifting stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear to Johnny, the lonely and troubled white boy who has been sent to live with his grandparents after his parents' separation. Scolded by the boy's mother for interfering in family matters, Remus decides to leave the plantation. But when Johnny follows him and is injured by a charging bull, Remus returns to offer solace at his bedside. Naturally, all ends well: the parents reconcile, and soon Johnny is dancing up hills again with his friends, as old Remus trails happily behind them.
The film, which intercut live acting with some of the most stunning cartoon animation and color techniques ever seen by movie audiences, was praised for its technical excellence; and Baskett was awarded a special honorary Academy Award. Yet, while Southern popular and critical response to the film was overwhelmingly favorable, protesters from New York to Hollywood picketed the film-more heavily, in fact, than any film since The Birth of a Nation. (At the Atlanta premiere, protesters shouted, "We fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom!") The NAACP condemned the film's distortions, such as the idyllic relationship between master and slave, and black politicians called for its suppression.
Song of the South was seen as a metaphor for the plundering of black culture: the indispensable Remus is criticized, not rewarded, for stabilizing the family structure; his distinctive black voice is silenced; and his tradition is usurped and exploited (as Johnny learns to conjure the cartoon animals on his own). While the film was commercially successful, it forced Hollywood to reconsider the way black characters were depicted, especially in light of the increased emphasis on racial tolerance in the postwar period. (Song of the South was quietly retired by Disney in 1986.)
Astor Pictures, 1948
After Oscar Micheaux, the leading black independent filmmaker of the 1920s and 1930s, could no longer compete financially with the Hollywood studios which were producing increasingly successful black-oriented and black-cast films, he reluctantly left the industry and resumed the writing of his novels. But in 1948, he saw an opportunity to revive his film career by producing The Betrayal (based on his novel The Wind from Nowhere, which in turn reworked themes and characters from his earlier novels and films).
The self-proclaimed "strangest love story ever" told of a young black homesteader in the Dakota wilderness was promoted as the "greatest Negro photoplay of all time." Yet everything about it was substandard. As one reviewer noted, "the acting is worse than amateurish; the dialogue ridiculous; the story downright stupid." With a running time of three hours and fifteen minutes, it was among the longest films ever produced, second only to Gone With the Wind. Production costs exceeded $100,000, a significant portion of which comprised Micheaux's own investment.
Released by the white-owned Astor Pictures, The Betrayal opened at the Mansfield Theater, the first time that an all-black film was given a Broadway premiere. Unfortunately, it failed completely at the box office and was withdrawn after just a few showings. No copy of it exists today.
Micheaux's financial loss was so severe that he never recovered. Despite his arthritis and his immobility, he was forced to go back on the road to sell his books. In 1951, during one of those trips, he fell ill and died, in virtual obscurity.
Only recently have Micheaux's tremendous accomplishments gained the critical appreciation by film historians and the recognition by the motion picture industry that they so richly deserve. Today, Micheaux is hailed as the first great black filmmaker in America.
20th Century Fox, 1949
The years following the Second World War continued the impetus for integration and ushered in other social changes, including the development of a black middle class and a dramatic increase in the number of black workers, especially professionals.
Hollywood, too, reacted to the public's growing cultural and racial awareness by launching an era of "problem" or "message" movies. One of the most innovative and liberal of these was Pinky, directed by Elia Kazan and based on the novel Quality by white novelist Cid Ricketts Sumner.
In the film, Pinky, a fair-skinned nurse who has been passing for white in the North, returns home to the Deep South, where her hardworking Christian grandmother Dicey Johnson (played by the incomparable Ethel Waters) and an old white woman named Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore) teach her vital lessons about self-respect.
Ultimately, after Pinky wins the right to retain the home that Miss Em had bequeathed to her, she decides to stay in the South and turn the property into a black nursing clinic and nursery school. She also finds the courage to break up with her white fiance, who is willing to marry her only if she maintains the "secret" of her race, and to assert proudly her black identity.
Despite its compromises-including the happy Hollywood ending, which was a significant departure from the book, and the casting of white actress Jeanne Crain to play the title role-Pinky was noteworthy for its ambitious attempt to depict the nature and extent of racial inequality.
For her brilliant performance as the illiterate but dignified old laundress Aunt Dicey, Ethel Waters was nominated for an Academy Award (only the second black performer to receive an Oscar nomination)
INTRUDER IN THE DUST
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1949
Perhaps the finest of Hollywood's race-themed "problem" films of the late 1940s and early 1950s was Intruder in the Dust, closely and faithfully adapted from the novel by William Faulkner and directed by Clarence Brown.
The film, which graphically depicted the consequences of mounting racial hostilities and mob rule, was a gripping study of a proud and fearless black man, Lucas Beauchamp, who is arrested and tried for the murder of poor-white Vinson Gowrie. With the help of a liberal lawyer, two young boys (one black, one white), and an octogenarian spinster who feels a spiritual link to Lucas, the real killer is exposed and Lucas-who knew the identity of the murderer all along but realized that no one would believe him if he accused a white citizen-is exonerated.
Played by the actor Juano Hernandez, Lucas is a figure of immense dignity whom the white townspeople are unable to diminish or ignore. In the final scene, as the patriarchal Lucas marches into his lawyer's office to pay his legal fee, awaits a receipt, and then walks away through the center of town, it is clear that he is indeed "the keeper of our conscience."
HOME OF THE BRAVE
Screen Plays, Inc./United Artists, 1949
Like Pinky Johnson in Pinky, the central character in another black-oriented "problem" film, Home of the Brave, learns to use his experience of racial discrimination to gain a better understanding of himself and his position in postwar American society.
Arthur Laurents' play The Way Back, on which the film was based, featured a Jewish character in the "problem" role; but the film adaptation, directed by Mark Robson, turned him into a black man named Peter "Mossy" Moss (James Edwards), a young black private who suffers partial amnesia and hysterical paralysis after the death of his best friend, a white man named Finch (Lloyd Bridges) whom he has known since childhood.
Both soldiers had volunteered to be part of a dangerous five-man reconnaissance mission on a Pacific Island. But more destructive to Mossy than the actual combat is the bigotry that he endures from his fellow soldiers. Only after a white psychologist helps him to confront the memories of a lifetime of prejudice is Mossy able to recover.
While the ending seems a little patronizing to audiences today, at the time Mossy's realization that he was "different" but that "everyone's different, yet underneath we're all guys" was a kind of black declaration of independence.
A low-budget independent film with no established stars, Home of the Brave became both a critical and commercial success in the North and South alike and was applauded as a Hollywood breakthrough in the presentation of its racial theme.
RD-DR Productions, 1949
Another of Hollywood's important "problem" films, Lost Boundaries was released in the same year as Pinky, Intruder in the Dust, and Home of the Brave. It was based on journalist William L. White's nonfiction book about a black Midwestern doctor and his wife, who for two decades passed for white in order to avoid the discrimination experienced even by black professionals.
In the film, the identity of Dr. Carter (played by Mel Ferrer) is exposed after he and his son volunteer for Navy service just before Pearl Harbor. Although the community turns against the Carter family, the white minister gives a sermon on tolerance, and, in true Hollywood fashion, harmony is restored.
Lost Boundaries clearly highlighted various contemporary racial prejudices, including the prohibition against blacks serving as commissioned officers in the Navy as well as other forms of racial discrimination in the Armed Service and the medical profession. And it revealed the ways in which even seemingly decent people harbor race hatred. (In one jolting scene, during a blood drive for the war effort, Carter's nurse wants to dispose of the blood given by a black chauffeur rather than "mixing" it with the blood of white townspeople.)
An immediate critical hit, Lost Boundaries was hailed even by the black press, which had initially criticized producer Louis De Rochemont for casting white actors in the black roles. The Afro-American, an important black newspaper, described the film as "one of the best treatments of a racial story that ever came out of Hollywood."
Argentina Sono Films, 1950
Although Hollywood was making progress on the racial front, black moviegoers continued to seek out and demand increasingly realistic screen images, particularly images that did not depict blacks as the "problem" but rather portrayed some of the real problems that blacks faced.
That kind of social realism was already evident in literature, most notably in Richard Wright's groundbreaking novel, Native Son (1940)-described as "a good novel about a bad Negro"-which eloquently captured the racial restrictions and oppression that were the plight of the urban masses. Within a year of its publication, the novel was adapted to the Broadway stage. But numerous attempts to bring Native Son to the screen failed.
Finally, Wright bought back the movie rights and decided to pursue the project himself. Unfortunately, his production was fraught with problems, from dishonest dealings by some of his investors to Wright's own romantic entanglements on the set. Moreover, Wright's filmmaking decisions-to film in Buenos Aires, to begin shooting before the final script was even written, and to cast himself in the role of Bigger Thomas, even though he was twice Bigger's age-were poor.
The finished film, which was released in different versions here and overseas, was at best amateurish and suffered from the same problems that many early independent black films did. The acting was stilted and unprofessional. Continuity was minimal. The South American accents of the extras were detectable, and some of the dialogue was actually dubbed. There was no dialogue at all during the crucial trial scenes, just a quick panning shot from the witness stand to Bigger's mother in the courtroom and then to Bigger in his jail cell. To satisfy the American censors, the film had to be cut so radically that its artistic integrity was destroyed. Consequently, American audience reaction was largely negative. Wright himself came to believe that the film was a complete disaster, artistically as well as financially.
Despite its shortcomings, however, Native Son conveyed a real sense of racial politics and depicted the condemnation and exploitation of the black male by white society. By affording a portrait of a sensitive young man rebelling against the bigotry he experiences-in other words, a "problem" film from a black perspective-it opened the door for a number of more successful coming-of-age films produced in the 1960s and 1970s based on the literature of black writers. (Native Son was re-made in 1986, with Victor Love and Oprah Winfrey.)
Warner Brothers, 1953
In Bright Road, which was based on a short story by black writer Mary Elizabeth Vroman, the young teacher Jane Richards (played by Dorothy Dandridge) learns that educating her pupils involves much more than just teaching them to read and write.
Through her compassionate understanding of their impoverishment, Miss Richards ultimately helps raise the youngsters' self-esteem and gets them to recognize their unique abilities. She is able to reach even her most alienated student, who finds acceptance after he manages to save the class from an attack by a swarm of bees.
Unfortunately, this well-intentioned film (in which Harry Belafonte made his screen debut in a small role as the school's principal) failed to excite either critics or paying customers. In an effort to save Bright Road from commercial failure, the Urban League heaped awards on it, encouraged members to promote it, and urged Warner Brothers to reconsider its decision not to market it in the South. Vroman herself tried to arrange an integrated premiere at Alabama's Maxwell Air Force Base.
The black newspaper The Defender found these various efforts "commendable." Yet, in the end, nothing could save Bright Road because, as studio head Dore Schary said, "We could not get anyone in to see it." Such lack of mass audience interest doomed a number of black-oriented films.
20th Century Fox, 1954
With magnificent lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II set to the music of Georges Bizet, Carmen Jones was an Americanized all-black version of the classic opera Carmen(which was based, in turn, on a novella by Prosper Merimée).
Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge), a sexy "hot bundle," lures Joe (Harry Belafonte), a handsome soldier headed for Officers' Flight School, away from his sweetheart, Cindy Lou (Olga James), and causes tensions with his sergeant (Brock Peters). Although Joe deserts his regiment and runs away with Carmen, she soon tires of him and takes up with a heavyweight prize fighter, Husky Miller (Joe Adams), in a betrayal that prompts Joe's tragic revenge.
With the part of Carmen, Dorothy Dandridge established herself as a major talent in Hollywood; unfortunately, her later roles were disappointing and did not allow her to fulfill her great promise. Even though both Dandridge and Belafonte were accomplished singers, neither had the necessary operatic range, so their voices were dubbed by Marilyn Horne (then a nineteen-year-old student at USC) and LaVern Hutcherson.
Featured in the film as Carmen's gold-digging friends were Pearl Bailey (as Frankie) and Diahann Carroll (as Myrt). Directed by Otto Preminger, Carmen Jones was nominated for two Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nomination for Dandridge (the first ever black woman to be so honored); and it won a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture.
BAND OF ANGELS
Warner Brothers, 1957
Band of Angels was a poor adaptation of the period novel by Robert Penn Warren. Sidney Poitier starred as Rau-Ru, the personal retainer whom slave trader Hamish Bond (Clark Gable) brought back from Africa as an infant, raised as his son, and educated beyond his station. Rau-Ru, however, resents his master's kindness and bides his time awaiting an appropriate opportunity to rebel. That opportunity finally comes when he joins the Northern forces and agrees to fight on their behalf.
Yet predictably by Hollywood standards, Rau-Ru reverts to the slave stereotype of earlier plantation films: after brandishing a gun and confronting Bond in his own home, he allows his "master" to escape before the Northern troops can capture and incarcerate him. Band of Angels is perhaps most interesting as a departure from the role of the educated, well-spoken, model integrationist hero in an integrationist age that Poitier played in numerous films, from No Way Out (1950) to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).
ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW
United Artists, 1959
A film noir drama directed by Robert Wise and based on the novel by William P. McGivern, Odds Against Tomorrow starred Ed Begley, Sr. as Dave Burke, a former police officer who is thrown off the force after thirty years for refusing to implicate his colleagues before the State Crime Committee.
In need of cash, Burke turns to crime. But in order to execute the upstate New York bank heist that he has planned, he must bring in two accomplices, Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), a jazz musician who owes a huge debt to a local gangster, and Earl Slater (Robert Ryan), a troubled war veteran and ex-convict who was jailed for assault and manslaughter. The three, however, find it difficult to work successfully as a team, especially as Slater reveals his racial fears and prejudices, which threaten to jeopardize the job.
Produced by Harry Belafonte, Odds Against Tomorrow was filmed at a studio in the Bronx, New York. Well shot (in black and white), the film included great New York City and Hudson, New York locations and featured an evocative soundtrack by John Lewis (of Modern Jazz Quartet fame).
The writing of the screenplay was credited to John O'Killens; but it actually belonged to Abraham Polonsky, a blacklisted writer who used his friend as a front. An uncredited Cicely Tyson, making her screen debut, appears briefly behind the bar of the jazz club.
TAKE A GIANT STEP
United Artists, 1960
Although less sophisticated than the Broadway hit A Raisin in the Sun, Take a Giant Step, another black-authored, family-oriented drama, had a similar theme of struggle and accommodation. Written by black playwright Louis Peterson and adapted to the screen by Peterson and his colleague Academy Award-winning writer Julius J. Epstein, Take a Giant Step was produced by Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, the independent film company formed in 1947 by Burt Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht.
Popular rock-and-roll singer Johnny Nash starred as Spencer Scott, a black teen coming of age in a northern white community (a role that Lou Gossett, Jr. had played on Broadway). In scenes that were rather volatile for the time, the film depicted Spencer's attempt to discover and assert his identity. In one such scene, after a white teacher presumes that slaves were simply too lazy to fight for emancipation, Spencer challenges the falsehood and is expelled; then he clashes with his father, who upholds the teacher's authority instead of empathizing with his son's frustration. The frank treatment of a black teenager's defiance, like the exploration of his awakening sexual desire, raised sensitive racial issues, while Spencer's use of profanity threatened to jeopardize the film's MPAA Production Code seal.
Unfortunately, interest in the film was limited, and its box office was poor. Theater owners complained that audiences did not want to see unknown black stars as serious actors; others suggested that racial problem films were just not a draw. Ironically, around the same time, the major studios were successfully promoting movies about rebellious white youth, including James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, in films such as The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel Without a Cause.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN
Columbia Pictures, 1961
A Raisin in the Sun-whose title was taken from a line in Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem," which warns that a dream deferred might "dry up like a raisin in the sun"-was based on Lorraine Hansberry's first and best-known play about a struggling black family in Chicago. The film adaptation skillfully revealed the aspirations as well as the frustrations of each of the family members, particularly of Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier), a chauffeur to a wealthy white man who sees only a bleak future of servitude ahead.
After a friend suggests that they open a liquor store together, Walter Lee imagines himself becoming a successful businessman who can afford a better life for his family. When his mother Lena (Claudia McNeil) gives him the funds from his late father's insurance policy to open a checking account for himself and a savings account to pay for his sister Beneatha's medical school education, Walter invests the money in the liquor store instead.
Unfortunately, his shady partner absconds with the cash, robbing Walter of his legacy (and Beneatha's) and leaving him even more bereft of hope. The only way to recoup the loss is to capitulate to the white man who has offered to buy back the house that Lena recently purchased, as a way of keeping blacks out of his neighborhood. At the last moment, Walter Lee salvages his dignity-and regains his mother's trust and his family's admiration-by refusing the offer. Knowing that opposition and even violence await them, the Youngers prepare to move into their new home and start realizing their dreams. (Interestingly, in 1938, Hansberry's father, Carl A. Hansberry, had challenged Chicago's real estate covenants by moving his family into a white neighborhood. With the help of the NAACP, he successfully fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which struck down the restrictive covenants in the famous Hansberry vs. Lee decision of 1940. But even though illegal, Chicago's discriminatory practices continued.)
Independently produced by David Susskind and Hansberry's friend Philip Rose and directed by Daniel Petri (who replaced Lloyd Richards, the black director who had brought the play to Broadway), A Raisin in the Sun introduced many white moviegoers to black family drama. The excellence of the film's ensemble cast, which also included Ruby Dee and Diana Sands, and its unerring exactness in depicting the problems and concerns of the ghettoized black working class made A Raisin in the Sun not just a sensitive, compelling study but also a landmark film.
It was re-made in 1986 by Hansberry's widower, Robert Nemiroff, to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original film. Directed by black filmmaker Bill Duke, the remake starred Danny Glover and Esther Rolle.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Universal Pictures International, 1962
A much beloved American film classic, To Kill a Mockingbird was faithfully adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee.
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), an idealistic lawyer in the racially divided town of Macomb, Alabama in the 1930s, agrees to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man who is wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Tom, however, is not the only victim of the town's bigotry. In retribution for Atticus' racial sympathies, the Finch children-six-year-old Scout and ten-year-old Jem-are attacked and unexpectedly rescued by their reclusive neighbor, "Boo" Radley (Robert Duval).
Told from Scout's perspective, the film is both a nostalgic portrait of childhood innocence in a small town peopled with Southern eccentrics and an unforgettable coming-of-age tale in which the youngsters learn to see their courageous and principled father in a new light. (Harper Lee based the character of Atticus on her own father, Amasa Lee, a widowed attorney; the character of "Dill" on her neighbor and lifelong friend, writer Truman Capote; and her depiction of the ever-curious Scout on her own childhood.)
To Kill a Mockingbird, which marked Robert Duval's film debut, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including the award for best actor (Gregory Peck, in a role that was originally offered to Rock Hudson) and best adapted screenplay (Horton Foote). The film also forged some enduring bonds for Peck: Harper Lee, moved by his performance, presented him with her father's pocketwatch, and Brock Peters delivered the eulogy at the actor's funeral in 2003.
LILIES OF THE FIELD
United Artists, 1963
A wildly successful film in which Sidney Poitier cemented his on-screen image as "ebony saint," Lilies of the Field was based on William E. Barrett's novel and directed by Ralph Nelson (who used his own home as collateral to finance the production).
Poitier played Homer Smith, an easy-going ex-GI who meets a group of German nuns who are trying to build a chapel in the Arizona desert. After agreeing to work for them for just one day, Homer stays on, so inspired by the nuns' faith that he takes on extra jobs to help pay for the building materials; and he musters the resources of the neighboring citizens and of a circuit-riding preacher to complete the project. The church, he realizes, is an important symbol to the community: raising it will in turn raise the hopes of the impoverished and oppressed townspeople. The day the church is to be consecrated, however, Homer leaves, knowing that he has already fulfilled the sisters' ambitions and his own.
The film, which opened to almost unanimously favorable reviews, afforded Poitier another chance to play the dependable, noble, self-sacrificing black man (although some viewers saw him more negatively: as an unpaid servant to whites). The role earned Poitier an Academy Award as Best Actor, the first ever Best Actor Oscar won by a black male performer (an achievement that would remain unmatched for almost four decades, until Denzel Washington's win in 2002 for Training Day).
It also marked the start of a series of similar roles for Poitier, in films such as The Slender Thread (1965), A Patch of Blue (1965), and To Sir, with Love (1967)-all of which, like Lilies of the Field, were adapted from works of literature.
BLACK LIKE ME
Hilltop Company/Continental Distributing, Inc., 1964
During the racial unrest of the 1950s, after real-life journalist John Howard Griffin got medical treatments to darken his skin so that he could pass as a black man, he undertook a journey of discovery throughout the Deep South. In a series of controversial articles, which eventually became the best seller Black Like Me, Griffin chronicled the abuse, humiliation, and terror that he experienced along the way.
As the film reveals, "John Horton" (played by James Whitmore) is harassed and even persecuted by many of the white Southerners he encounters. A bus driver harangues him for wanting to use a restroom available only to white passengers; a police officer threatens him just for sitting on a bench next to a white woman; and a farmer taunts him by asking if his wife has ever "had it" from a white man.
Yet the white bigotry to which he is exposed is, to some extent, offset by a sense of black solidarity. His fellow blacks give him good advice on proper racial conduct, help him secure safe lodging, and suggest appropriate social outlets and employment. The film, directed by Carl Lerner, served as an interesting and actual counterpoint to Hollywood's often-artificial "tragic mulatto" movies and focused attention on the racial atrocities that were all too prevalent in the era.
Continental Distributing, Inc., 1966
The Dutchman was a compelling adaptation of a one-act play by LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) expanded into a fifty-five-minute-long feature film. After being approached on a New York subway train by Lula (Shirley Knight), an attractive young blonde, conservative businessman Clay (Al Freeman, Jr.) finds himself engaged in an intriguing dance of seduction.
But Lula turns out to be psychotic. After throwing fruit and trash all over the train, she accosts Clay and accuses him of being an Uncle Tom. When Clay responds by lashing out at her pseudo-liberalism and pseudo-intellectualism, she pulls out a knife and stabs him to death, in full view of a trainload of passive passengers. He falls on top of her in a sexual posture before being carried away. Lula then boards another train and approaches a new black victim.
Directed in Britain by Anthony Harvey, the film was beautifully scripted and brilliantly acted. The dialogue between the two characters-the only dialogue in the film, since no other characters speak-is raw, intense, realistic. But the characters move quickly from realism to allegory.
Symbolic of the historical mistreatment of blacks, the serial seductress Lula entices and betrays Clay, the educated and civilized black man who must stay "buttoned up" to contain his rage but who finally explodes at the assaults on his manhood and his cultural history. Radicalized by the injustice, he is transformed into a militant, and then persecuted by the white society that has forced his transformation in the first place.
Like the legendary Flying Dutchman who is doomed to sail forever, LeRoi Jones suggests that the black man is doomed to racist victimization.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
20th Century Fox, 1967
In the Heat of the Night, a detective thriller set in the small town of Sparta, Mississippi (but actually filmed in Sparta, Illinois), was based on the novel by John Ball. Directed by Norman Jewison, the film featured another strong performance by Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a well-dressed black stranger who is picked up at the local train station on suspicion of the murder of a wealthy industrialist.
Tibbs, it turns out, is actually a homicide detective from Philadelphia who soon embarrasses the bigoted white Sheriff Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) with his shrewd investigative skills. Yet, as the unlikely pair works together to solve the crime, their initial dislike for each other develops into a mutual though grudging respect.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and received five, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Steiger), and Best Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant). Although Poitier did not receive a nomination, he reprised his role as Detective Tibbs in two other films, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971). In the Heat of the Night also inspired a prime-time television series, which starred Howard E. Rollins, Jr. and Carroll O'Connor. As such, it was the first winner of a Best Picture Oscar to be spun off for television.
IT WON'T RUB OFF, BABY
Film Three Productions, 1967
It Won't Rub Off, Baby, alternatively titled Sweet Love, Bitter, was based on the novel Night Song by contemporary black author John A. Williams. Loosely based on the life of Charlie "Bird" Parker, the film chronicled the struggles of Richie "Eagle" Stokes (Dick Gregory), a self-destructive jazz saxophone player, with addiction and the decline of his career and followed his friendship with down-and-out college professor David Hillary (Don Murray).
Directed by Herbert Danska, the film featured a bravura performance by Gregory; and it re-created the exhilaration of the New York jazz world with its strong musical score.
It Won't Rub Off, Baby was not the only one of Williams' works to be adapted to the screen: his novel The Junior Bachelor Society was reworked as Sophisticated Gents (1981), a television miniseries written by Melvin Van Peebles and directed by Harry Falk.
The miniseries centered on nine longtime friends who reunite after twenty-five years to honor the old coach who guided them through their turbulent youth. Each man has been dealt a different hand, yet all must confront the complexity of their lives, a marked contrast to the innocent joy they felt as members of their boyhood club.
Like It Won't Rub Off, Baby, the miniseries-which featured such fine actors as Paul Winfield, Raymond St. Jacques, Beah Richards, and Alfre Woodard-posed difficult questions about black identity in American society.
THE STORY OF A 3 DAY PASS
OPERA/Sigma III Corp., 1967
Melvin Van Peebles, the self-proclaimed "godfather of modern black cinema" and "the James Bond of black filmmaking," made his directorial debut with The Story of a Three-Day Pass, alternatively titled La Permission.
Based on an original story by Van Peebles, the film focused on Turner (Harry Baird), a black American GI stationed in France who receives a three-day pass to celebrate his recent promotion. After traveling to Paris, he begins an interracial affair with Miriam (Nicole Berger). But when he returns to the base, his bigoted captain expresses disappointment that Turner is not the trustworthy "good Negro" he believed him to be and busts him for fraternizing with a white woman.
What makes the low-budget romantic drama so compelling is the fact that all of the events are seen from Turner's perspective. As in Wright's Native Son, there are also several interesting fantasy sequences. (In one, Turner imagines himself with Miriam on a rooftop while white racists rave on the street below.)
Made by Van Peebles with the assistance of a grant from the French Cinema Center, The Story of a Three-Day Pass was the French entry in the San Francisco Film Festival. The film established Van Peebles' reputation as a director, and he went on to direct the major studio production Watermelon Man (1970), a parody of the "tragic mulatto movie," about a racist white man who wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned black and who learns to use his blackness as a form of empowerment.
But it was the landmark Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (written, composed, produced, and edited by Van Peebles, who also starred) which proved that black film could indeed reach mass audiences and offered a radical new black hero to whom black (and some white) moviegoers could relate, a hero diametrically opposed to the "black-as-martyr" type popularized in postwar liberal integrationist films or the traditional accommodating but asexual black image in the popular films of the 1950s and 1960s (typified by the characters played by Sidney Poitier).
THE LEARNING TREE
Warner Brothers-Seven Arts, 1969
The Learning Tree, a touching coming-of-age film based on Gordon Parks' semi-autobiographical novel about growing up black in a small Kansas town during the 1920s, was one of several black-oriented films released in 1969. But unlike those other films-including Up Tight, Slaves, and Putney Swope, all of which tended to indict the system and focus on black militancy-The Learning Tree succeeded precisely because it was old-fashioned and sentimental, in the best sense of those words. As the Variety reviewer noted, in the film "characterizations are broad, tradition and the influence of elders are emphasized, and moral decisions are key plot points."
With the love and support of his family, the fifteen-year-old protagonist Newt Winger learns to cultivate values like honesty and loyalty; from other people in the community, he learns about discrimination, violence, and racism. These youthful experiences serve as his "learning tree" and allow him, at the end of the film, to come forward as a critical witness in a murder trial, even though his testimony stirs up racial tensions in the town.
With its universal theme, The Learning Tree was a film about race that paradoxically transcended race, which may account in part for its success at the box office.
A renowned still photographer whose work appeared in Life and other prominent publications, the late Gordon Parks, Sr. not only produced and directed the film; he also wrote and scored the music. The Learning Tree was thus the first film financed by a major studio to have a black director, and it opened Hollywood's doors not only for Parks, who went on to direct even more commercially successful films like Shaft (1971), but also for other black directors.
COTTON COMES TO HARLEM
United Artists, 1970
Based on a novel by Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem introduced moviegoers to the unforgettable black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and Grave Digger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) who must break up a "Back-to-Africa" con being run by Reverend O'Malley, a corrupt but charismatic black preacher reminiscent of populist Marcus Garvey in the 1920s.
Although O'Malley pretends that he is building a "black ark" to return his followers to their ancestral land, he is merely scamming the residents of Harlem out of their money. When armed thugs show up at one of his rallies and steal all the cash, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger must expose the swindle and recover the money.
Shot on location in Harlem using actual residents as extras, the film was directed by first-time director Ossie Davis, who co-wrote the script and transformed what could have been a standard detective comedy into a folkloric version of a 1930s race movie. One of the earliest-and still among the best-"blaxploitation" films, Cotton Comes to Harlem was full of ethnic humor that might have been insulting from a white director but was actually suggestive of the freshness that black performers could bring to movies when the tables were turned and the old stereotypes inverted.
Among the many sight gags and inside jokes were the references to "a honky in the wood pile," the image of an overturned cart of watermelons that prevents the detectives from pursuing the robbers, and the cotton bale in which the stolen money is hidden. (Usually a symbol of black enslavement, the bale full of cash becomes the means by which black junkman Booker "Uncle Budd" Washington is able to start a new life for himself in Africa.)
Even though concerned producers did not allow Davis to explore the black experience as fully as he had wished, the film drew unprecedented numbers of black viewers. Even Southern exhibitors were anxious to screen it and capitalize on its grosses. (Coffin Ed and Grave Digger were featured again in a far less interesting film, Come Back, Charleston Blue , based on Himes' novel The Heat's On and directed by black television director Mark Warren; and they made a cameo appearance in A Rage in Harlem , based on Himes' For Love of Isabelle.)
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1971
The favorable response to Melvin Van Peebles' new black hero in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song ensured that similar films would follow. Among the best was Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks, Sr., which imbued the white detective created by novelist Ernest Tidyman with a black sensibility.
As played by newcomer Richard Roundtree, John Shaft was a black superhero, a renegade detective who was street-wise and savvy. Although he lives in an expensive Greenwich Village apartment and works out of a tiny office in Times Square, Shaft is never out of touch with Harlem life.
When black boss Bumpy Jonas dispatches two black thugs to deliver Shaft to him, Shaft in turn dispatches them-out the window and onto the street several stories below. It seems that Bumpy needs Shaft's help in recovering his daughter, who he believes has been kidnapped by black militants but who in fact is being held by Mafia mobsters anxious to take over Bumpy's business in Harlem. Shaft has little respect for others' authority: when a mobster calls him a racial epithet, he responds with an ethnic epithet of his own and breaks a bottle against the man's head. Shaft's street smarts are equaled only, as his name suggests, by his sexual prowess.
Shaft's appeal to contemporary audiences resulted in two sequels, Shaft's Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), though neither film was as popular or powerful as the original, and eventually in a remake, Shaft (2000), starring Samuel L. Jackson and featuring Richard Roundtree. And it led to a host of imitators, most notably Superfly (1972), directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., and its sequels Superfly T.N.T (1973) and The Return of Superfly (1990), as well as various black female superwoman movies like Cleopatra Jones (1973), Coffy (1973), and Foxy Brown (1974).
Diotima Films/Cinerama Releasing Corporation, 1972
Georgia, Georgia, an independent film whose original score and screenplay were written by noted black poet and author Maya Angelou, starred Diana Sands as Georgia Martin, a black singer who travels to Stockholm, where she meets and falls in love with a white Army deserter. But even overseas, Georgia is unable to escape racial discrimination. The warnings to Georgia that she should "stick to her own kind" seem overblown-until the film ends in a brutal murder.
Directed by Stig Björkman, Georgia, Georgia was not widely shown or distributed (although it was nominated for a Golden Bear Award at the 1973 Berlin Film Festival). But Angelou continued to write and adapt for the screen. Just a few years later, she co-wrote the teleplay of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979), the first of her four autobiographical volumes in which she described her heart-wrenching spiritual and literary odyssey, which began when she was quite young. Like Georgia, the film's Maya wrestles with racial prejudice and tries to find her own voice.
Writing was not Angelou's only involvement with stage and film: as a young woman, she was cast in small roles, such as that of a singer from Trinidad in Calypso Heat Wave (1957) and a dancer in Porgy and Bess (1959) and was even nominated for a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in Look Away (1973). On television, she played the Emmy-nominated role of Nyo Boto, Kunta Kinte's grandmother, in the miniseries Roots and has appeared in several series, documentaries, and telefilms. Notably, Angelou was one of the first black women directors in Hollywood.
20th Century Fox, 1972
Sounder, based on a Newbery Prize-winning novel by white author William H. Armstrong and directed by Martin Ritt, was a touching black coming-of-age story. But whereas the novel focused on the struggle of a young boy to understand the cruelty of the world around him, the film-with a sensitive screenplay by black playwright Lonne Elder III-was a paean to the resilience and fortitude of the black family, who find spiritual sustenance in each other.
After hardworking Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield) is forced to steal meat in order to feed his hungry children, he is arrested and taken away to a prison work camp, where he is isolated from his family but never loses his dignity. In his absence, his wife Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) musters her reserves in order to keep their small farm running. A symbol of the matriarchal strength that is so integral to the black family, she plows the land, plants the crops, harvests the sugar cane, and stands up to the white property owner.
It is the eldest son, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), however, who is most affected by his father's arrest; and it is he who must care for the loyal dog Sounder-whose abuse and wounding by the white sheriff parallels Nathan Lee's-until his father returns. Among the original scenes that Elder added to the screenplay was a happy ending in which Nathan Lee reunites with his family but realizes that he must send his son away from home to get an education and ensure a better life.
Although Sounder offered nothing new in terms of film technique, its simple story evoked the unyielding black spirit of survival. Both Winfield and Tyson were nominated for Academy Awards for their outstanding performances and Lonne Elder III became the first black screenwriter ever nominated for an Oscar.
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN
Tomorrow Entertainment, Inc., 1974
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, based on the novel by popular black writer Ernest J. Gaines, was an Emmy Award-winning made-for-television movie that popularized more than a century of black American history.
Miss Jane, a black centenarian, recounts her harrowing tale of tragedy and triumph, from slavery and Reconstruction to the emergence of the civil rights movement. She recalls how, after losing her husband and her son, the two most important people in her life, she found solace in her religion and in her community, where she became a symbolic "mother" to her people and a witness to the changes in the world around her.
Yet the genius of the film was not in the events that Miss Jane relates but in her unique voice, which turns her personal history into a remarkable combination of slave narrative, folk history, sermon, and oral poetry.
In a final climactic and dramatic scene (which was original to the film and which Gaines deplored), Miss Jane becomes a heroine herself, as she engages in a public act of civil disobedience by drinking from a "Whites Only" water fountain in front of the courthouse.
Although the telefilm has become a staple in libraries and classrooms nationwide, it elicited some criticism for introducing the character of a white male reporter who appropriates Miss Jane's words and turns her story into his story by limiting her role in her own narrative. (In the novel, Miss Jane shares her experiences with a black female history teacher.)
Nonetheless, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman earned Emmy Awards for Cicely Tyson, director John Korty, screenwriter Ann Peacock, and music composer Fred Karlin. It set new high standards for television and helped to establish a tradition of adaptation to telefilm that continued with the landmark miniseries Roots (1977) and other fine black-oriented productions like The Piano Lesson and The Wedding.
THE RIVER NIGER
CineArtists Picture Corporation, 1976
Blaxploitation films were not the only films to explore the growing sense of black militancy. The River Niger, adapted by Joseph A. Walker from his award-winning play performed on and off Broadway four years earlier by the Negro Theater Ensemble, drew on the same reactionary, revolutionary fervor that motivated Sweetback, Shaft, Superfly, and other black superheroes of the era.
Directed by Krishna Shah, the film depicts a black family at a critical time in their lives: Jeff Williams (Glynn Turman) returns from the Air Force to his home in Los Angeles, where his father Johnny Williams (James Earl Jones), a frustrated philosopher-poet, and his mother Mattie (Cicely Tyson) have planned a celebration in honor of his completion of navigators' school.
In fact, Jeff washed out, because he refused to act the way the white officers expected him to. But he is not the only family member with a secret: Johnny drinks too much, and Mattie has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
As the Williams family unwittingly becomes involved in a crime perpetrated by a gang of Jeff's old neighborhood pals, both Jeff and Johnny become increasingly radicalized. Ultimately, after Johnny is shot protecting the gang members, he turns his sacrifice into a protest of a lifetime of social injustice.
Both as family and protest drama, the adaptation was a rather weak version of the play. It wasted the talents of its excellent cast and received universally poor critical reviews. Yet it managed to hint at an important and recurring theme in contemporary films-that violence against white institutions may be the only way to counter the violence of white racism.
A HERO AIN'T NOTHING BUT A SANDWICH
New World Pictures, 1977
Like the revolutionary novel for young adults by Alice Childress that was its source, the film adaptation of A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich told the compelling story of a young man's addiction to heroin.
Thirteen-year-old Benjie Johnson (Larry B. Scott), who lives with his single mother Rose (Cicely Tyson) and his widowed grandmother, starts shooting up on a dare from another boy. Soon Benjie is "skin-popping" regularly, stealing money from his family, and isolating himself from old friends. After two of his teachers report him, he is forced to enter a hospital detoxification program. But when he is released, he falls back into his old ways. After coming close to death, he is rescued by his mother's hardworking boyfriend, Butler (Paul Winfield), who reaches out to him, literally and figuratively.
Although the realism was less gritty at times than in the novel (in which Benjie lives in a cramped apartment in Harlem, not a little house in Los Angeles, and relates his experiences in the first person), the film vividly conveyed the boy's sense of loneliness and abandonment, his search for his missing father, and his difficult rehabilitation. (The actual detoxification was graphically depicted in a series of black-and-white still photos and in lengthy encounter-group sessions with former addicts.)
Despite its compromises and its understandable cinematic simplifications, A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich offered a frightening portrait of black adolescent turmoil and of a boy's maturation in a modern society that is hostile to him.
A SOLDIER'S STORY
Columbia Pictures, 1984
A Soldier's Story, based on Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama A Soldier's Play, explored the frictions within a group of black GIs stationed in the South during World War Two. After a black army sergeant, Vernon Waters, is murdered on a Louisiana military base in 1944, suspicion falls immediately on the Klan and then on the two white officers who admitted to seeing Sarge and even to beating him shortly before he was killed.
But Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.), a black lawyer from Washington, refuses to accept the obvious solution to the crime. Eventually he learns that Waters, a mean and self-loathing black man (well played by Academy Award nominee Adolph Caesar), had been despised by the soldiers in his all-black unit for persecuting to death a young private. He discovers that the murderer was actually a black soldier, Peterson (Denzel Washington), who hated everything that Waters represented.
Through excellent use of flashback scenes, the film (whose screenplay was written by Fuller) portrayed the complex dynamic between the late Waters, whose identity becomes as important as the identity of his killer, and Davenport, a fellow officer who is also a victim of racial discrimination within the Army.
Despite a pat Hollywood-style conclusion that reverses the play's message of black inequality, the film was an overwhelming hit with audiences. Yet, as film critic Vincent Canby pointed out, "It is a measure of how little real progress there has been in the attitude of American movies toward black culture that A Soldier's Story, which could as easily have been made in 1964 as in 1984, seems noteworthy today for its broad popular success."
THE COLOR PURPLE
Warner Brothers, 1985
Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple was met with protests, even as the film was still in production; pickets and demonstrations in many major cities greeted the film's release in December, 1985. The adaptation itself was roundly criticized for its oversimplifications, particularly the racial clichés and Hollywood stereotypes that it perpetuated, and denounced for its unrealistic black representations. Spike Lee spoke for a number of film historians and critics when he condemned the film's hostility toward its male characters, who were depicted as "one-dimensional animals." Still others were disappointed by the way Spielberg de-emphasized the female characters, whose tragedies Walker had turned into hard-fought triumphs.
And yet there was something undeniably affecting about the story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), a frightened young girl who is abused and impregnated by her father and then brutalized further by her uncaring husband. But through the experience of her own victimization and the strong example of the women in her life-sister Nettie (Akosua Busia), an African missionary from whom she is separated for decades but with whom she feels an enduring bond; Sophia (Oprah Winfrey, in her film debut), her proud and defiant sister-in-law, who asserts herself even to her racist white employer; and Shug Avery (Academy Award-winning Margaret Avery), the flamboyant juke-joint singer who is the object of both Celie's and her husband's affections-she finds her own voice.
Celie's long odyssey of self-discovery culminates not only in the successful business that she creates for herself but also in her happy reunion (on Independence Day) with her sister and with the now-grown son whom her father gave away at birth. The film ends with a shot of the sisters clapping hands once again in a field of purple flowers, an image that brings the story full circle.
Despite its artistic shortcomings, The Color Purple was a commercial success. Within nine months of its release, it made over $100 million dollars; and, as one of the all-time best-selling videos, it grossed many millions more. Yet to many, The Color Purple remains an uneven film that melodramatically reduced-or "purpled"-Walker's distinctly feminist message.
DRIVING MISS DAISY
Warner Brothers, 1989
When elderly widow Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) can no longer drive on her own, her son hires Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) to serve as her chauffeur. Although at first Miss Daisy stubbornly refuses to allow Hoke to take her anywhere, he slowly and gracefully wins her over.
Both of them, it turns out, are outsiders: Hoke, because of his skin color, Miss Daisy, because she is a Jew among wealthy Southern Wasps. But Hoke cannot understand why Miss Daisy is unable to recognize the social changes occurring in the South with the nascent civil rights movement. She in turn cannot understand why Hoke's "people" are raising such a fuss.
Over the course of twenty-five years, they develop an affectionate friendship that transcends their differences and celebrates their kinship. After Miss Daisy is sent to live in a nursing home, she finally recognizes that Hoke is truly her "best friend." (The film, however, reveals little about Hoke's personal life, apart from his service to Miss Daisy.)
Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Alfred Uhry (who based the part of Boolie, Miss Daisy's son, on himself), the film was an interesting variation on the Hollywood "buddy" films of the 1980s and 1990s, which usually paired two male stars in the buddy roles.
Critically acclaimed and beloved by moviegoers, Driving Miss Daisy won four Academy Awards, including the coveted awards for best picture, best actress (Jessica Tandy), and best screenplay (Uhry).
THE PIANO LESSON
Republic Pictures Corp., 1995
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson by the late black playwright August Wilson examined one family's slave heritage and the tumultuous battle over how best to honor it. Created at the Yale Repertory Theater by Wilson and longtime collaborator Lloyd Richards (who was the first black director on Broadway, with A Raisin in the Sun), The Piano Lesson went on to Broadway, where it received great acclaim. Adapted to film by Wilson and directed by Richards, it was first telecast in 1995 on CBS-TV as a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presentation.
In the film, Boy Willie (played by Charles Dutton, who starred in the stage version and for whom Wilson originally created the role) arrives in Pittsburgh, where he wants to take possession of the old family piano so that he can sell it and buy a piece of property that his family had once worked as slaves in Mississippi. But the piano is half-owned by Boy Willie's sister Berniece (Alfre Woodard), a frustrated widow who is unwilling to part with it. Although Berniece no longer plays the piano, for her it represents the spirits of her ancestors, which she is trying to preserve.
In the course of the film, the piano itself becomes a character: purchased from a white plantation owner in exchange for "one and a half slaves" (a slave woman and her young son), it bears the family's blood. Haunted by ghosts, the piano takes on a life of its own and starts playing suddenly without anyone touching its keys. After Boy Willie tries to exorcise the ghosts, he is reminded of his strong kinship with Berniece, which transcends their petty animosities, and he relinquishes his claim. But he makes Berniece promise to keep playing the piano-that is, to keep reconnecting to their past-so the troublesome ghosts don't return.
Like the play, the telefilm was a triumph. Wilson was uniformly praised for the way he imbued a conflict between siblings over a single family heirloom with the haunted music and voices of their own ancestors that is their shared and inescapable heritage.
40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks, 1992
Before he wrote Roots, author Alex Haley collaborated on an "autobiography" with black leader Malcolm X, whom he had earlier interviewed for Playboy. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley attempted to document the ways in which Malcolm Little_who was born into poverty, victimized by the social services agencies after his father was killed and his mother institutionalized for mental illness, imprisoned for crimes arising from the wild street life he led in Detroit, Boston, and New York_was able to reclaim his black identity as he transformed himself into Malcolm X, a respected figure in the black community.
After Malcolm X's assassination in 1965, the book became more popular than ever, since it was the most significant writing that he left behind. Over the years, a variety of distinguished writers hoped to bring Malcolm X's story to the screen: reportedly, there were adaptations by James Baldwin, David Mamet, Calder Willingham, David Bradley, and Charles Fuller. But it was innovative black filmmaker Spike Lee who ultimately succeeded in the challenge. Not surprisingly, Lee's film Malcolm X invited controversy even before its release.
In adapting the book to film, Lee took some small liberties, such as the invention of characters like Malcolm's friend Shorty (played by Lee), who served as a way of advancing the plot. Yet Lee remained true to the book's spirit, especially to its movement from the exuberance of Malcolm's youth to the austerity of his conversion and the somberness of his assumption of power within the Nation of Islam. And he allowed Malcolm's own words and actions to stand as the statement of his beliefs.
The film's success was attributable in large part to Denzel Washington, who integrated the stridency of Malcolm's militant rhetoric against whites with the quiet intellectualism of his growing awareness of the importance of language in his struggle to raise black awareness.
Partially subsidized by prominent members of the black community, including Bill Cosby, Prince, Michael Jordan, Tracy Chapman, Janet Jackson, and Oprah Winfrey (all of whom Lee photographed wearing Malcolm X caps over the final credits), the film only intensified the debate over Malcolm's life and legacy.
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS
Tri-Star Pictures, 1995
A mystery of a different kind-but set in the same era as A Soldier's Story-was Devil in a Blue Dress, a superb adaptation of the first of black author Walter Mosley's popular detective novels.
When newly unemployed mechanic Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins (Denzel Washington) needs money to make his house payment, he accepts an offer to locate a local politician's girlfriend who is known to frequent the racially-charged neighborhood of Central Avenue in Los Angeles. Naturally, the job is not as simple as it seems, and soon Easy finds himself seduced, misled, beaten up, and implicated in two murders. Only with the help of his old childhood pal from Houston, Mouse (Don Cheadle), a gold-toothed psychopath, is he able to unravel the various mysteries.
Written and directed by Carl Franklin, the film not only recreated all of the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel of the 1940s; it also depicted an era when veterans like Easy used the GI Bill to move from the South in search of better employment. The painstakingly accurate period sets contributed to the stylized look of the film, which was itself a fine portrait of a black man coming of age in postwar America and trying to claim his legitimate share of the American Dream.
To help Denzel Washington get a better feel for the character of Easy, director Franklin reportedly had him read various works by Chester Himes, including his novel Cotton Comes to Harlem. The strong acting, combined with the film's distinctly black voice, the excellent writing and directing, and the vivid evocation of black life in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, made Devil in a Blue Dress one of the finest adaptations ever of black fiction.
WAITING TO EXHALE
20th Century Fox, 1995
Waiting to Exhale, based on Terry McMillan's popular novel about the healing strength of the bonds that exist among black women confirmed those black life stories of black middle-class professionals offered lucrative possibilities for filmmakers.
The central character, television producer Savannah Johnson (played by Whitney Houston and based, in part, on McMillan), moves to Phoenix in the hope of improving both her professional and her social prospects. She soon forms a tight circle with her old college roommate Bernadine (Angela Bassett) and with two other friends Gloria (Loretta Devine) and Robin (Lela Rochon), each of whom has personal issues with which she must deal.
Savannah is involved with a married man who is reluctant to leave his wife; Bernadine feels betrayed by her husband's decision to divorce her for a white woman; Gloria, a single mother, frets over her weight, her teenaged son, and her bi-sexual ex-husband; and Robin, a highly competent underwriter, is drawn to bad men with good looks. With the support of her "sistah friends," each woman finds some resolution.
The inexhaustible spirit of the well-matched quartet of women helped to raise the story above the usual cinematic soap opera, just as the film's rich texture and funkiness made it a commercial-and crossover-hit and established Waiting to Exhale as one of Hollywood's all-time most popular black-cast and black-directed movies.
Significantly, the contract that McMillan negotiated with 20th Century Fox gave her unprecedented control over the film adaptation. At the recommendation of her friend, novelist Amy Tan, she personally chose Ron Bass to collaborate with her on the screenplay; and she handpicked black actor/director Forest Whitaker to direct the project. McMillan also ensured that many of the technical and managerial positions were filled by blacks. Thus, as one critic noted, both on screen and off, McMillan "used her clout to empower her own community."
Touchstone Pictures, 1998
In Beloved, a tortured black woman attempts to reconcile the past and ensure a future for herself and those whom she loves. Based on Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film effectively combines elements of a slave narrative with those of a ghost story.
Directed by Jonathan Demme from a script co-written by Akosua Busia (who starred as Nettie in The Color Purple), Beloved is a tale about Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), a former slave who is haunted by "baby ghost," the spirit of a beloved child she lost eighteen years earlier. Just as it seems that Sethe has finally found a modicum of happiness with her daughter Denver and a new man, Paul D (Danny Glover), a former slave from "Sweet Home," the same Kentucky plantation where Sethe lived with her late husband, she is startled to find in her front yard a beautiful but almost catatonic young woman. Convinced that her baby girl has returned from the dead, Sethe tries to give "Beloved" everything that her heart can offer and her money can buy. But Beloved, it seems, is after Sethe's soul-and nearly gets it. After bringing Sethe to near ruin, Beloved disappears again, leaving Sethe even more bereft, at least until Denver locates Paul D and urges him to return. The reunion raises the possibility of their becoming a family once again, a family that loves "thick" and honors the "rememory" of all who are beloved.
Glover's performance as Paul D, a man who has suffered intensely and buried secrets deep within his "red heart," is deeply touching. Kimberly Elise's Denver is full of repressed emotion and yearning for a life free of the ghosts that haunt her family. And Thandie Newton's Beloved is bold and sensual, a haunted and haunting spirit made flesh.
Yet, while a number of critics responded with enthusiasm for the film and Oprah Winfrey aggressively promoted it, audiences failed to embrace it. Beloved's disappointing box office not only surprised Disney's Touchstone Pictures, which had produced it, but also made rival studios wary of supporting large-budget movies involving serious racial themes.
HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK
20th Century Fox, 1998
If the problem in Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale was how to find a good man, the problem in How Stella Got Her Groove Back (based on McMillan's second novel) is what to do with him once he is found.
Depressed by the serious illness of her close friend, Stella Payne (Angela Bassett), a forty-two-year-old woman who has everything that money can buy, ships her son off for a two-week stay with his father and hops a plane for Jamaica. There, she begins a passionate affair with Winston (Taye Diggs), a much younger man. After she returns home, she takes another risk and invites him to live with her. Despite some initial problems of adjustment, by the time Winston proposes, Stella is ready to accept.
The film, based on McMillan's own famous May/December romance that began on holiday in Jamaica and culminated in marriage (and, most recently, in an infamous, scandal-ridden divorce), the film was a pleasant but undemanding story that drew on all of the conventions of popular romance.
Directing his first feature film, Kevin Rodney Sullivan seemed unable to do more than string together a series of handsomely-framed shots of his two gorgeous leads. Yet, even though the characters were underdeveloped and the dialogue often trite, How Stella Got Her Groove Back was a "chick flick" favorite-or, as one critic called it, "film peignoir."
A LESSON BEFORE DYING
HBO Pictures, 1999
The most recent of Ernest J. Gaines' novels to be adapted to the screen, A Lesson Before Dying focused on the author's familiar themes of manhood and community. In a Louisiana parish in the late 1940s, a young black man named Jefferson (Mekhi Phifer) is convicted of the murder of a white storekeeper. After Jefferson is sentenced to death, his godmother Miss Emma asks Grant Wiggins (Don Cheadle, in an Emmy-winning performance), the local teacher, to meet with him and to help him die like a man.
Grant is reluctant at first because he has seen too many disenfranchised young black men ruin their own lives. Jefferson, on the other hand, is full of cynicism and self-loathing, the result of a lifetime of discrimination. But, as the two men learn more about each other, they develop a bond of friendship; and both undergo a remarkable metamorphosis that gives them a better understanding of the value of their lives.
The film adaptation, directed by Joseph Sargent for HBO Pictures, was as inspired as it was inspiring. The dramatic opposition of characters-Grant, with his articulate speech and proud bearing, versus Jefferson, with his inarticulateness and shame-is even more dramatic on screen than in the novel.
Yet it is Miss Emma, superbly played by Irma P. Hall, who emerges as the film's most memorable figure. An unselfish black matriarch whose strength and determination keep the family and community together in times of greatest adversity, she maintains her position of moral superiority to whites even while she observes the coded symbols of blackinferiority.
Like the earlier adaptations of Gaines' work (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman , The Sky is Gray , and A Gathering of Old Men ), the film version of A Lesson Before Dying is a lesson not so much about dying as about living with dignity and honor, about loving, and about survival and endurance.
20th Century Fox, 2002
Antwone Fisher, based on Fisher's autobiography, is the story of a troubled young sailor, Antwone "Fish" Fisher. After his explosive temper threatens to get him kicked out of the Navy, he is ordered to see Dr. Jerome Davenport, a military psychologist.
At first, Fisher refuses to open up to the psychologist; but eventually he breaks down and reveals his abusive and turbulent childhood. With the support of Dr. Davenport, who helps him come to grips with the serious issues of violence in his life and becomes the father that he never knew, and his loyal girlfriend Cheryl, Fisher embarks on a painful search to find the family that abandoned him as a baby. After being reunited with them, he finds the courage to stop fighting and start loving, and is able to make a dramatic turn in his own life.
The film marked the impressive directorial debut of Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, who also starred as the psychologist, and the film debuts of Derek Luke, who played the title role, and Joy Bryant, the model-turned-actress who appeared as Cheryl. Fisher himself was credited with writing the film's screenplay. Today, he is a Hollywood writer and producer and a best-selling author.