This Friday sees the release of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” (our review) the true story of Eugene Allen (renamed Cecil Gaines for the film), an African-American butler who served multiple presidents through several generations in the White House. As played by Forest Whitaker, Gaines bears witness to pivotal moments in the nation’s evolution, watching as the intersection of American history and black history reveals truths about himself and his surroundings, understanding both where he’s been, and where he’s going.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, films explicitly about black history in America are few and far between. Many find the stories mediated through the eyes of a white protagonist to better sell to a wider (read: whiter) audience. Others rely on common populist crutches that limit black advancement to the field of music or sports. As a result, while the big screen undoubtedly lends itself to capturing the scope and breadth of the black American experience, there’s a long list of fantastic films that were relegated to television (for budgeting or target-marketing reasons) that document African-American history with panache, titles like “Roots,” “The Rosa Parks Story,” “Boycott,” "Separate But Equal," "Thurgood" and “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.”
But as prestige-y and high-profile as "Lee Daniels’ The Butler" is, we decided to take a peek at a variety of big screen titles that deal with similarly real people and events from black U.S. history. It remains difficult to get funding for these types of films today, mostly because it remains difficult to get funding for any type of film that doesn’t rely on explosions or capes. But despite everything, through the years, a number of filmmakers have taken a serious-minded, intense approach to the struggles and victories of the black American, from the slave era to today. Some are undoubtedly more successful than others, but here are twelve big-screen films that at least attempted to give cinematic voice to some historical aspect of the black experience in America.
Movies have been made about Muhammad Ali before and since, but often they kowtow to his notorious vanity and outsized charisma, placing him at the center of the universe. Michael Mann remains the only filmmaker thus far to understand that Ali was part of a rich tapestry of an extraordinary era of black politics and social change, a titan attempting to stand straight in the middle of a tempest. Most were bewildered when “Ali” opened in 2001, as it pictures the boxer in a deeply lyrical manner, framing him against a live performance by Sam Cooke, suggesting that the story we were about to see was deeply rooted within a complex American legacy. Will Smith’s Ali is, like the inspiration, handsome and brash, big and proud—it’s unquestionably the best thing the former Fresh Prince has ever done. Mann’s film is an ensemble piece, however, not just for Smith but also for Ali. The film picks up when he’s already a heavyweight champion, with the name Cassius Clay, before he meets Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall), who claims he must now be Muhammad Ali and convert to Islam. Thus begins the most tumultuous era of Ali’s life, as he refuses to volunteer for the Vietnam War (the subject of the upcoming Stephen Frears documentary "Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight"), and becomes involved with several extramarital affairs while carrying on with the peripheral characters of his life, including famed sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) and trainers Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx) and Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver). Like Ali himself, Mann’s film floats like a butterfly, but in lieu of a sting, it levitates, presenting, through the prism of Ali’s life, a moment when America was forced to question their allies and heroes, and face the truths about an increasingly racially diversified world.
There was a certain inevitable failure to Steven Spielberg taking on “Amistad” as a directorial project. Years before, he had dealt with negativity from the black community for making “The Color Purple.” He was therefore under pressure to produce a great picture, particularly given the needs of the still-fresh DreamWorks he had just co-founded, and also to right previous wrongs. The film follows a major Supreme Court case to determine the rights of rebellious slaves who, in 1841, led a mutiny of their slave ship headed to Cuba, only to end up on American soil. The slaves are arrested, as the courts attempt to determine who should be in true possession of the boat: slavery is still legal in America, but the international slave trade had already long been outlawed. Spielberg’s film feels as much about the institution of slavery itself as it does about the truth of the case, which (as seen in the film) involved a complex series of restrictions on citizenship that clashed with common perceptions about slaves on American soil. “Amistad” is credited with the discovery of the talented Djimon Honsou, but it features a number of unconvincing casting choices, including Matthew McConaughey as attorney Roger Baldwin, just one year after defending Samuel L. Jackson for a revenge murder in “A Time To Kill.” Unfortunately, the structure of Spielberg’s film manages to maintain the second-citizen status of blacks within the trial, compounded by a number of European actors playing American figures (including two presidents played by Brits) to suggest what historical pictures have always illustrated as a representation hierarchy: if you were to judge by films, you’d assume all of human history originated from the United Kingdom. Oscar bait though it may have been (the film received three Academy Award nominations) it still represents a significant story wherein the architects of our nation were forced to question their prejudices.
“The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars And Motor Kings” (1976)
The Negro Leagues of the 1930s were a sore spot for the history of social progress in sports, given that even those who supported integration were content with the entertainment level provided by segregated baseball. John Badham’s classic sports comedy, however, isn’t concerned with the racial aspect of the Negro Leagues, but the business end: charming pitcher Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams) is not the only player who rankles under the harsh and underwhelming salaries of Negro League stars, but he’s the first one to propose that a group of their best players secede instead. His Traveling All-Stars And Motor Kings become more of a sideshow than a league, going from town to town and dividing the box office receipts for themselves, while also sapping a chunk of the profit from their former bosses and current competitors. “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars And Motor Kings” opts not to focus on the racial strife and ugliness that led to the compartmentalization of black athletes, but the financial discrepancies, taking a look at an equal pay situation through the prism of a crowd-pleasing comedy where dangerous racist elements keep surfacing, taking a lighthearted view at a very basic problem regarding segregation that forced some to think creatively.
“Get On The Bus” (1996)
The historic Million Man March was bound to result in a film at some point, and considering the amount of extras required, you’d think it would be a massive undertaking. Instead, Spike Lee hustled to get his version of the story onscreen only one year later, by taking an opposite tack: portraying a trip to the event, an intimate bus ride that allows us to witness the spectrum of politically motivated African-American men in the mid-’90s. Lee’s film, shot on the fly with a minor budget, is instead something of a theater piece, not indicative of the racially charged anger that critics claim was a major part of Lee’s stronger films, but showcasing a warmer, more human view of strangers united by a skin color. It’s a bit of a cheat that Lee finds a surrogate in a film student played by Hill Harper, who introduces conversation topics bound to cause debate and disharmony amongst the group, giving Lee and screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood a chance to soapbox about topics like the O.J. Simpson verdict. But the enclosed space also grants a showcase for actors like Charles S. Dutton and the late Bernie Mac, while brief stops along the way to allow for standout appearances from Richard Belzer and Wendell Pierce, adding to the dramatic tempest at the center of this rich, ultimately inclusive film.
There’s a reason some filmmakers are labeled as being practitioners of the same concepts and ideas over and over again: Edward Zwick earned criticism for following “Glory” with films like “The Last Samurai” and “Blood Diamond,” capturing the experience of foreigners and minorities through the eyes of a white, often American, protagonist. Perhaps that observation wouldn’t be so cutting were it not for the ill-fated casting of Matthew Broderick, a fine comedic performer, in the pivotal role of Colonel Shaw here. Broderick’s been classically known as a lightweight dramatic actor with a youthful appearance, and selecting him to front this Civil War drama about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry severely undermines the drama implicit in Shaw’s task. The character here is placed in charge of the group, a battalion of black soldiers that represented the first such group of black soldiers in American history. As an escaped slave, a young Denzel Washington, gives an intense, spirited performance, one that earned him his first Academy Award and paved the way for an illustrious career to come; Broderick would not be the last minor actor he would blow off the screen. “Glory” is otherwise an admirably handsome historical epic, with large-scale battles that cemented Zwick as a filmmaker who could work with massive casts and significant budgets, but it also helped tell a story of the very first time following the Emancipation Proclamation that whites were legally forced to place their lives in the hands of their fellow Americans of a different skin color.
“The Jackie Robinson Story”/”42” (1950/2013)
The two more prominent retellings of this crucial moment in black history take decidedly different approaches in bringing the story of the first black major league baseball player to the screen. The first one, in fact, cheats by going straight to the source: Robinson is tasked with playing himself in this meat-and-potatoes biopic. In an approach that marks Robinson as blessed since youth, we watch him makes his way up the ranks, dominating while maintaining a graceful, intense silence, responding to adversity as simply another wave of athletic competition keeping him from success on the diamond. The newer film, which features Chadwick Boseman as the color barrier-breaking second baseman, focuses more on the racial struggles faced by the player, while also illustrating how he was both passionate and headstrong enough to know that the rest of the world was socially a bit behind in accepting progress in both the sport and in life. Boseman is terrific, ironically much more engaging than the stiff Robinson, and the contemporary film doesn’t feel compromised in its address of racial issues, particularly in one upsetting scene where a rival manager becomes a catcalling jerk in the middle of the game, severely disrupting whatever peaceful balance exists between Robinson and other players. Both films show that, in order to rise above the rancor, Robinson needed to get out there and play ball, opening the floodgates for diversity on the field that led to baseball being recognized as America’s pastime, and a pivotal part of our national identity.
“Malcolm X” (1992)
It took a village to get “Malcolm X” up and running at Warner Bros. Such are the obstacles facing films about black American history, with financiers concerned about "niche" material and a narrow appreciation of history among the audience, black or otherwise. “Malcolm X” was a different beast, however, one that refused to shut down, as director Spike Lee pooled in some of his own money while receiving contributions from almost every major black celebrity to tell the story of the incendiary Civil Rights leader. Lee’s film is unique because of how it dispenses with standard biopic trappings, instead depicting a colorful black culture that provides a playground for handsome young Malcolm Little, in a star turn by Denzel Washington that remains one of the best performances to never be honored with an Academy Award. Little’s rise in the criminal underworld results in a broken spirit behind bars, which allows for a rocky conversion to Islam, sowing the seeds for a tumultuous time spent speaking on behalf of black Americans, urging them to come together and rise up against white oppressors. Lee makes sure to depict Malcolm’s evolving views, just as he examines the paranoia of his last days, surrounded by prying eyes and invasive forces concentrated on subversive elements. The struggle to bring “Malcolm X” to the big screen was a worthy one, resulting in a vital, lively picture that demonstrates Malcolm X as a fiery, multi-dimensional personality, one who redefined what it was like to be black in America. It also provided a showcase for a never-better Washington, one that cemented his status as one of the great actors of his generation; in “Malcolm X” he’s exciting, handsome, and ultimately moving as a charismatic firebrand who sought change during politically troubled times.
“Night Catches Us” (2010)
It’s been years since Marcus (Anthony Mackie) has visited Philadelphia, but everyone’s memory remains fresh, and bitter. Marcus was a former Black Panther, but is known locally as a snitch, rolling over on a fellow radical who ended up dying during an arrest. With hostility from even his brother (Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter), Marcus finds no sanctuary anywhere but in the arms of the widow of the man he outed (Kerry Washington). Making amends, he befriends her and her daughter, but soon the relationship grows more intense; when the local police think they can hit Marcus up for another favor, it creates a tension that results in him questioning his own identity and what constitutes social responsibility, both to the people around him and to the racial realities that still surround a black man in 1976. Tanya Hamilton’s underseen 2010 drama takes its cues from real-life incidents, but the line between fact and fiction is more blurred than in most examples here, as she also creates a personal, intimate portrayal of the later generations of Black Panthers, those forced to pay for the actions of their predecessors while still staying true to their communities. With an intense score from The Roots, the picture also features a standout role from Mackie, who proves to be deserving of more widely seen work, giving a performance that respects the moral ambiguity of a politically dangerous moment in time.
"Ghosts of Mississippi" (1996)
Directed by Rob Reiner with an astonishing lack of subtlety, the undoubtedly well-meaning but even now dated-feeling “Ghosts of Mississippi” tells the story of the decades-long lead up to the 1994 trial and eventual conviction of unrepentant racist Byron De La Beckwith (a snarling, revolting James Woods) for the murder of black civil rights activist Medgar Evers over 30 years before. A little like Alan Parker’s controversial, incendiary (and much more effective, to the point of rage-inducing) “Mississippi Burning”—which is loosely based on a case referenced in ‘Ghosts,’ in fact—Reiner’s film positions the drama as more of a fight between Good White Guys and Bad White Guys, leaving not a lot of room for any of the black cast members to breathe, let alone get in some decent characterization. It’s a great pity here, as Evers’ widow is very strongly portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg, who steals every one of her scenes with her mixture of stoic, wry intelligence and tamped-down righteous rage. But no, what we’re really asked to invest in is lawyer Bobby deLaughter’s (Alec Baldwin) journey from Dixie-singing assistant DA married to the kind of blonde Southern bigot who’s always played by Virginia Madsen and who sleeps with a bow in her hair, to passionate firebrand crusader married to a supportively forward-thinking nurse. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame a film so almost mawkishly mired in its own good intentions, for the focus of the story it chooses. But it is telling that we have this glossy, A-list Hollywood movie about Bobby deLaughter, the lawyer who convicted the killer of Medgar Evers, but nothing truly comparable about Evers himself. Streets, statues and songs, yes, but movies, no. Instead we have “Ghosts of Mississippi” and its terrible surfeit of cheesy closeups of Alec Baldwin Being Moved.
Mario Van Peebles’ third film chronicles the beginnings of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, depicting the early days of the organization as a way for urban community members to stand their ground in the face of bigotry and police brutality. While the focus is placed on several historically well-known members of the party (primarily Marcus Chong as Huey P. Newton), the film is an ensemble, illustrated by a fakeout introduction that allows us to meet a young child who dies shortly after the opening credits, fooling us into thinking we would watch his coming-of-age. “Panther” is an intense experience, pitting the members of the party against each other as they disagree regarding certain principles, questioning the decision to be non-violent when bodies start to hit the pavement, cutting down the numbers of the separate Panther clans. But the picture’s aim becomes one of militance in the third act. The shady white law enforcement agents spying on the organization and plotting turn out to be a true-life rogue FBI faction, one whom the movie credits with funneling narcotics into inner city environments and crippling radical revolutionary groups. It’s a popular theory, the sort you could never squeeze into a wide release movie today, a disappointing but curious fact. “Panther” isn’t largely discussed today, but it boasts a who’s-who of young stars, including surprisingly strong dramatic turns from Chris Rock and Bobby Brown, though to see a more pointed, less historically-based film that makes similar points, it’s highly recommended to seek out “The Spook Who Sat By The Door.”
“Red Tails” (2011)
On paper, what Anthony Hemingway and George Lucas’ “Red Tails” does is illustrate the struggles and adventures of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black pilots deployed during World War II to navigate our airborne battles in Italy as the war raged on from the ground level. But the picture is primarily focused on being a throwback to the war serials of yesterday, where heroes climbed into the cockpit and pulled off death-defying stunts to crush the Kraut opposition while becoming aviation legends in their own right. Hawks portrayed by should-be stars Nate Parker and David Oyelowo headline a cast of characters that, when not battling the enemy, are trading barbs and taking instructions in a manner completely removed from contemporary sensibilities: these are clean-cut heroes, each with certain skeletons in their closet but all joining forces against a common enemy while coping with the ignorant racism from their white peers. The corniness of “Red Tails” in its out-of-time simplicity and hoary clichés feels more conceptual than organic, particularly when matched with the cutting-edge technology that allows for some of the more compelling aerial dogfights ever captured on film. But as great as the significance is that we’re watching the very first black pilots in flight, the Lucasfilms production seems more concerned with old-school Hollywood spectacle, one that simply replaces the hue of the characters involved.
Ostensibly a dramatization of a real-life 1923 massacre that left an entire Florida community burned to the ground (and at least a half dozen African Americans dead), John Singleton‘s "Rosewood," an unexpected follow-up to his romantic drama "Higher Learning," is a history lesson dressed up with occasional sentimentality (complete with a "sweeping" score by John Williams) and a host of boldly stylistic flourishes. A costly box office flop at the time of its release, "Rosewood" features a fine lead performance by Ving Rhames, who plays a drifter and World War I veteran who, while passing through the town of Rosewood, hears the tale a white woman spins about a black man abusing her. Fearing for his life, Rhames leaves town while the hysteria and lynch mob mentality takes over. (Eventually he comes back, to kill a bunch of motherfuckers.) At the time, Singleton was known for his urban dramas, but here he makes the past come alive via a host of pop culture references to action movies past, everything from classic westerns to the Hong Kong bullet ballets of John Woo. "Rosewood" is occasionally overwrought and came under fire for its deviations from historical fact, but more often than not it’s a riveting, beautifully told story that has enough visual dazzle and kinetic energy to keep even the most jaded viewer engaged. Its supporting cast is also unimpeachable and features early work by Don Cheadle alongside established actors like Jon Voight, Michael Rooker and Robert Patrick. While the film concerns a town that’s burned down, some of the actors showcase the dangers of chewing scenery. Moving and memorable, "Rosewood" was unfairly overlooked and deserves a second look, at least while the rest of Singleton’s body is being reassessed.
Of course this is merely scratching the surface of even this most underrepresented of topics. Black history is obviously not confined to the U.S., though we took that as our focus, but with a more international flavor there are diverse examples of films that deal with events of historical importance from crowd-pleasers like "Cool Runnings," to explosive dramas that shed light on underreported incidents like ‘Hotel Rwanda" and Richard Attenborough‘s "Cry Freedom" to even old-school epics like "Zulu" and the cottage industry around Nelson Mandela ("Goodbye Bafana," "Invictus," "Winnie Mandela" and the upcoming "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom"). Others may have been set against historical U.S. backdrops, but were themselves fiction, or heavily fictionalized dramas which discounted some of the more obvious prestige pics like "Beloved," "The Color Purple," "The Great White Hope," "The Spook Who Sat By The Door," even "Gone With the Wind" and Quentin Tarantino‘s controversial "Django Unchained." And, ultimately, some were just "Driving Miss Daisy." –Gabe Toro, with Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor