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

Bone (1972)

Dir: Larry Cohen. 2003. Starring: Yaphet Kotto, Joyce Van Patten, Andrew Duggan, Jeannie Berlin. English. Black Cinema/Comedy

Replace the repressed white male anger of Fight Club with that of the repressed white housewife’s in order to explore the terrain of Jungle Fever and you get the gist of writer/director Larry Cohen’s debut. Instead of fitting squarely within the genre of blaxploitation, the film examines some of the stereotypical representations of the black male which helped make the genre possible to begin with.

Bernadette (Van Patten) is a bored Beverly Hills wife who lounges by the pool when she’s not spending her husband’s money. Her husband, Bill (Duggan), is the prototypical American salesman who’s invested so much of his life in the manufactured desires of advertising that he no longer remembers if there’s anything real behind the imagery. (We see him dreaming of selling junkyard cars filled with bloody corpses.) As George Costanza said, “it’s not a lie, if you believe it.”

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Posted by:
Charles Reece
Feb 2, 2008 12:33pm

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

Crooklyn

Dir: Spike Lee. 1994. Starring: Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, Zelda Harris, Carlton Williams. English. Black Cinema/Comedy/Drama

Crooklyn is a love letter from Spike Lee to his youth. Co-written with his sister Joie and brother Cinque, it draws from memories of their childhood growing up in Brooklyn. It is the story of the Carmichael family made up of a jazz musician father, an overworked and harried schoolteacher mother and 5 children. Seen from the eyes of ten year old Troy, the only daughter, we see the chaos and turbulent joy, frustration and sorrow of the Carmichael family. The movie plays like impressions with abrupt shifts from comedy to drama and has no political or dramatic motivation other than a look at life through the eyes of a child. Even without this the movie provides a true emotional arc and one is absorbed by the nostalgic and slightly foreign era where children are not afraid to play in the streets or confront crazy neighbors. Nobody walks around shaded by hooded sweatshirts and assuming menacing anonymity simply for their own protection. The only drug users are two ridiculous glue sniffers who are the neighborhood's sad joke.

When we follow Troy, who visits her relatives in Virginia, there is a wonderful shift of perspective as the differences in environment and behavior are cataloged and deciphered through her eyes. You can feel the strength of her mother rise to the surface as she adapts and dismisses affection and manners from her southern family. There is no arguing her demand to go home and, once there, she must draw on that strength again to see herself and her family through tragedy.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 27, 2008 3:39pm

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

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

Flag Wars

Directors: Linda Goode Bryant, Laura Poitras. 2003. English. Black Cinema/Documentaries

Set in Columbus, OH and filmed over 4 years, Flag Wars is not only a film about gentrification, but also of racism, homophobia, and privilege. Throughout the film, you will follow Linda Mitchell as she fights for both her home and her life, Chief Baba Olugbala Shango Obadena as he struggles to keep a simple sign with his name above his door, and Jim Yoder and Nina Masseria as they face hate crimes and resistance from their neighbors. You will meet African-American families who have lived in their homes for 40 years and now face the fear of losing them to a wave of mainly white, gay professionals looking to rehab properties and better the neighborhood. While one side strides toward change, the other enjoys a life established long ago. Flag Wars shows us, quite literally, the middle of the road where the two sides meet....

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Posted by:
Amoebite
Feb 23, 2008 3:33pm

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

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

Lady Sings the Blues

Dir: Sidney J. Furie, 1972. Starring: Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor. Black Cinema.

The most celebrated singer-turned-actor performance ever might be Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. It revived his career and was a turning point in his legacy as he moved from a teenybopper idol to the more mature crooner he is best remembered for today (and he followed it shortly with another important performance in The Man with The Golden Arm). But Sinatra had been acting in musical films for years (On The Town). In terms of degree of difficulty, for a first major role Bjork’s performance in the torture-fest sorta-musical Dancer in the Dark is certainly impressive and many singers have gone on to have their film careers eclipse their singing success (Cher, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, and to some extent Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand). But the most audacious acting debut from a mega-star singer has to be Diana Ross taking on the role of troubled iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Directed by journeyman director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C) and based on Holiday’s own (said to be mostly fictional) autobiography, Ross throws herself into the role with aplomb, having to go to emotional depths that would challenge even the most veteran thespian. The film also made a kinda-star of her leading man, Billy Dee Williams, and helped establish a movie career for stand-up comedian Richard Pryor. Executive produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr, it was the first flick made under the Motown banner and it would also prove to be the apex of the the historic record company’s forays into filmmaking.

Lady Sings the Blues is a mostly typical music bio in that it's one of those classic “rags-to-riches-to-total self destruction” stories. No matter how many times I’ve seen this kind of tale, if the lead performance is dynamite, I’ll buy in. I don’t know how much of it is actually true but it’s still a doozy of a rollercoaster ride. After being raped as a girl, Billie took the only jobs that seemed to be available for a young black woman during The Depression: a cleaning woman and a prostitute. She eventually talked her way into singing in a little smokey nightclub where she meets her dream man, Louis (Williams), and catches the attention of a couple of white musicians who take her on the road to build up her name and also turn her on to drugs. The film seems to be more fascinated with Billie’s messy and ugly personal life than her voice, which most experts rate as one of the most seminal and important of the twentieth century. As Billie climbs the stardom ladder she is met with racism and humiliation, with her devoted but frustrated husband Louis lending support. (Though he comes off as Mr Wonderful here, it’s been reported that in real life Billie’s husband was just as much of a creep as the other men who exploited her. Ironically he was a technical advisor for the film, which may explain the whitewash.) Billie continues to sing her way to the top, but she falls deeper and deeper into heroine addiction. Her only friend appears to be her piano player (real life junkie Pryor, excellent here in a supporting role). Of course Pryor would reveal his own special kind of genius later with his two landmark concert films, Richard Pryor Live in Concert and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Hospital stays, arrests and even true love aren’t enough to end the torture for Billie. Though she does have a triumphant Carnagie Hall comeback show, it’s still a story of another legend dying young.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 20, 2014 12:51pm
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