Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

Films selected and reviewed by discerning movie buffs, television junkies, and documentary diehards (a.k.a. our staff).

The Wiz

Dir: Sidney Lumet. 1978. Starring: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Mabel King, Nipsey Russell. English. Musicals/Black Cinema

The Wiz has one of the worst reputations in film history. It was a commercial and critical flop and is said to have ended not only Diana Ross' film career but Hollywood's investment in musicals and the era of black-centric movies that had recently evolved from blaxploitation to character driven drama and comedy. Made in 1978, it is the film version of the staged musical that took Broadway and the Tony's by storm in 1975. The staged production starred a teenage Stephanie Mills (who would later become an R&B sensation) who was also signed to play Dorothy in the film version. That role went to Diana Ross who critics, and even some involved with the production, felt was too old for the part. She was supported by an outstanding cast including a young and vibrant Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Ted Ross reprising his Tony award winning roll as the Cowardly Lion. Unfortunately, Joel Schumacher wrote a flimsy script using very little of the play's libretto and instead infused it with “feel good” jargon from motivational guru Werner Erhard including the song “Believe in Yourself.” The critics nailed the film and Ross' performance with brutal accuracy but also gave high praise to its practical production including costumes, choreography, and cinematography. In fact, it was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed to win any. As a child I was mesmerized by this film. Dorothy did seem too old in the beginning but as she began dancing down the yellow brick road her joy and beauty emerged until I thought she herself was magical. I remember rejoicing in the new “modern” versions of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. They felt so tangible and textured - more so than The Wizard of Oz of 1939. The Munchkins were kids, like me! And the people of Emerald City were extravagantly beautiful. I remember being frightened and on the edge of ...

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 11, 2008 3:30pm

The Spook Who Sat By the Door

Dir. Ivan Dixon. 1973. Starring: Ramon Livingston, Lawrence Cook. English. Black Cinema.

For years I was inundated by requests for this seemingly much-in-demand film that I'd never heard of. It played in theaters for only three weeks upon its initial release before being yanked. Despite being successful and popular, the FBI and COINTELPRO put pressure on the film's distributors, fearful of what it might inspire in viewers. When it finally came to DVD, I watched it.

The plot concerns a white U.S. senator whose political career is faltering. In a cynical bid to appeal to black voters and save his career, he voices his support for a C.I.A. drive to recruit more blacks into the organization. This works but - in a move that's both comical and obviously designed to rile up viewers and sets the tone for the rest of the film - the new recruits are graded on a curve. Only one of these new, token black agents can pass - quiet, polite Dan Feldman. And Dan learns that his new position will be as Reproduction Chief which requires him to man the copy machine in the basement at all times.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 9, 2008 3:36pm

Emperor Jones

Dir: Dudley Murphy. 1933. Starring: Paul Robeson. English. Drama/Black Cinema.

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was one of the towering figures of African-American art, culture, and politics in the 20th century. An All-American collegiate athlete and attorney, he became a star of the dramatic and musical stage, an international concert luminary, recording artist, and the first black leading man on film. But his outspoken opposition to segregation and his support of Russia’s Communist regime made him a pariah during the Cold War ‘50s; the U.S. State Department lifted his passport for nearly a decade, until the Supreme Court overturned its action in 1958. Only near the end of his life did his singular achievements begin to be recognized without the taint of racial or political prejudice.

Robeson’s 1924 appearance in the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones launched him to stardom. He portrayed Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter turned murderer who becomes the despotic ruler of a Caribbean island. The expressionistic 1933 film production recreated that heralded performance, and was expanded to include several musical numbers featuring Robeson’s peerless, profound bass voice. The last 15 minutes of the film is essentially a soliloquy by Jones, who, hunted by rebellious natives, is terrorized by “haints” from his past; it’s an acting tour de force.

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Posted by:
Chris Morris
Feb 6, 2008 6:01pm

Disappearing Acts

Dir: Gina Prince-Blythewood. 2000. Starring: S. Lathan, W. Snipes, J. Amos, Q-tip, R. Hall. English. Romance/Drama.

Valentine's Day is just around the corner and it may very well be a made-up holiday but your loved one probably won't care who made it up as long as they have Valentine status. If you don't have a special someone on the day, who cares? We are celebrating love. Love. Everyone has that - don't let the crappy candy tell you otherwise and if you want to see the softer side of V-Day, I have the perfect choice.

Disappearing Acts is a made for HBO film based on a best selling novel by Terry McMillan. It tells the sexy and heartrending story of Zora and Franklin - a new couple dealing with the beauty and land mines their love encounters. Sanaa Lathan and Wesley Snipes are a gorgeous and skilled duo whose initial chemistry and lust might set your plasma screen on fire. They are hot and then hotter. So much fire and it seems inevitable that someone will get burned, but far from one dimensional these two lovers come complete with personal history that informs without slagging on the pace or script. Their new love is surprising and fun and it is a treat to watch them discover deeper levels of emotional intimacy as they tackle the obstacles between them.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 4, 2008 3:45pm

African American Lives

Dir: Graham Judd. 2006. Starring: Dr. Ben Carson, Whoopi Goldberg, Bishop T.D. Jakes. English. Documentary/Black Cinema

This is a great documentary that uses history, genealogy, and new technologies to retrace the violently and deliberately erased ancestral histories of a group of participants, all of African ancestry whose relatives were, for the most part, brought over involuntarily from Africa. The answers it provides are often thought-provoking in ways that most discussions about race aren't.

The host is Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr, a W.E.B. DuBois professor of the Humanities and the Chair of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University. I’d seen Gates in Wonders of the African World where he seemed to feign ignorance about everything he learned on his travels in Africa. I mean, he’s got some pretty big credentials and yet he’d continually act like he had no idea about the realities of his chosen subject of expertise until his interviewees revealed it to him. It seemed like he felt that pretending that everything was new to him would make him more identifiable to us, the presumably ignorant viewers. In this documentary, unfortunately, he does the same schtik which is just about the only shortcoming of the documentary, although it can be sort of funny. For example, he “guesses” that, given his appearance, his ancestors came from the East African kingdom of Nubia (huh?!), despite the fact that nearly all slaves in the U.S. came from the West Coast slave centers built centuries earlier, not by Europeans, but by other Africans. Of course it turns out that 0% of slaves were Nubian. His surprise at his DNA results seems genuine though when they reveal that his matrilineal line goes back to Ireland.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 2, 2008 4:04pm

Raisin in the Sun

Dir: Daniel Petrie, 1961. Starring: Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil. English. Black Cinema.

"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"

Langston Hughes' opening lines to his poem "A Dream Deferred" inspires the title of the film, which is adapted from Lorraine Hansberry's 1951 Broadway play. The story is about the working-class African American family in Chicago, each member struggling against the idea of deferred dreams. The way each character has to fight against generational prejudice to achieve their dreams makes a most powerful, touching story, as deep to the core of African American history. And while I want to cry at the injustices that bind many to social despair, I am inspired by the moments of strength that the human spirit can possess.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Feb 2, 2008 4:00pm

Watermelon Man

Dir: Melvin van Peebles. 1970. Starring: Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons. English. Black Cinema/Comedy.

Godfrey Cambridge plays Jeff Gerber, a happy-go-lucky, casually racist and sexist insurance salesman who’s oblivious to the fact that nearly everyone that knows him finds him unpleasant and unlikeable. One morning he awakens to find, to his shock and repulsion, that he’s turned black in his sleep. He blames it on his daily devotion to his tanning bed but not even his doctor can explain it. As far fetched as it sounds, they try to explore the drastic change in Jeff's appearance in a fairly logical way. Of course, it ultimately can't be explained and the film moves into making humorous social commentary.

Some of the jokes are a bit formulaic. For example, his supposedly liberal wife is horrified at being married to someone who's turned black. Jeff stays indoors after his race switch until he works up the nerve to head to “the colored part of town” to buy some skin-lightening creams which (of course) fail to work.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 2, 2008 3:30pm

La Noire de... (a.k.a. Black Girl)

Dir: Ousmane Sembene. 1964. Starring: T. Diop, A-M. Jelinek, R. Fontaine. French. African Cinema/Black Cinema/Foreign.

Black Girl was the first feature length film made in Sub-Saharan Africa by an African which is why its director, Ousmane Sembene, was known universally as the "Father of African Cinema." He didn't end up being a prolific director, but he was one who regularly made amazing films up until his final film which came out which he made at 81, three years before his death in 2007.

Sembene began his creative career as an author but realized that he could reach a far larger audience with film. As a speaker of Wolof, his films would only be understood by Wolof speakers and the small audience which subtitles can reach (being problematic due to widespread illiteracy in Africa and further language barriers). To overcome these obstacles, Sembene used a cinematic solution, the employment of a highly visual style which owed more to Soviet aesthetics than to mainstream Hollywood or European films. It also suited his background as a Communist primarily concerned with social change. The thoughtfully-constructed visuals would convey his lifelong concerns with post-colonial identity, racism and later in his career, African corruption and negative cultural practices.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 2, 2008 3:03pm

Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection

Dir: Charles Burnett. 1977. Starring: Henry Gayle Sanders, Kaycee Moore. English. Black Cinema.

Killer of Sheep is a beautifully simple urban tale of an African-American community set in Los Angeles' Watts district during the1970s. Yes, the 1960s held a cultural revolution for racial freedom, but history often assures us that problems lie on far more complexities than just a cry for racial freedom. Every community has its individual fight and here we follow Stan, frustrated with the monotony of working at a slaughter house, and how it affects his life at home.

Noteworthy of the film is how personal it feels. It makes sense – Charles Burnett wrote, produced, shot, and directed it with a budget of less than $10,000 with the help of many close friends and family. The result is a natural, humanistic style. It takes a lot of courage for a director to let a story work inside out, and that's where the simplicity lies. Emotion is often wallpaper when complicated plots involve twists and turns. Instead, here, we are embraced in moments within relationships, moments of hardship, moments of tenderness, and moments of family-hood.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Feb 2, 2008 3:01pm

Cooley High

Dir: Michael Schultz. 1975. Starring: Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Cynthia Davis, Garrett Morris. English. Black Cinema.

Set in the last days of Cooley High’s 1964 class, the film follows the extracurricular exploits of a disaffected young writer, Preach (Turman), and his more matriculatedly inclined friend and local sports star, Cochese (Hilton-Jacobs). Based on the post-adolescent years in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project of writer and the film’s primary auteur, Eric Monte, the story serves as a counter-narrative to the white-flight reactionary dreaming of American Graffiti. Where that film sought to return the disillusioned 70s mainstream audience to simpler and happier times, pre-JFK assassination, Monte places his characters right under the storm cloud a-brewin’ and still manages to find the same teen-aged joie de vivre one encounters in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Dazed and Confused.

Preferring lived experience to the more academic variety, Preach spends his days ducking classes, gambling, drinking, smoking dope, trying to get into the pants of the best-looking girl in the neighborhood, Brenda (Davis) and dreaming of being a Hollywood writer. Cochese has considerably less trouble with the girls and makes plans for college. With a bit of movie magic, it turns out that Brenda loves the same poets Preach does, while Cochese has learned that he’s going to the school of his choice with a full scholarship. Although the film delivers as many comedic highs as any suburban teen comedy, the graffiti-ridden streets framed by the petroleous columns of Chicago’s metro railways taints the wish-fulfilling qualities it shares with a John Hughes flick. And, sure enough, the film takes on a more somber tone after Preach and Cochese go on a joyride with some felonious friends in a Cadillac.

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Posted by:
Charles Reece
Feb 2, 2008 2:47pm
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