(Click here for all posts)
We're smack dab in the middle of the countdown, (click for 50-41 or 40-31) so let's keep moving with Big Media Vandalism's Black History Mumf Series' 50 Recommended Films, aka our Sight and Sound ballot IN COLOR.
We had a black and white TV when I was a kid, so this logo was bullshit!
30. Clockers- Spike Lee has always used his opening credits sequences to set the tone of his films. Clockers opens with one of the most harrowing credits sequences I’ve ever seen, full of young Black bodies cut down in their prime by bullets. Despite the slight desaturation of color, Lee’s crime scene photos pack a nauseous, horrific punch. The film that follows is no different, with its scenes of intense, graphic violence creating yet another set of crime scene photos. Richard Price adapts his novel, Marty Scorsese produces, and Lee coaxes outstanding turns from his actors, especially Harvey Keitel, Regina Taylor and Delroy Lindo. Keitel gives one of his best performances as the cop investigating a murder he thinks a low-level drug dealer named Strike has committed. Taylor’s scene of maternal ferocity stayed with me for days, as she batters Strike in an attempt to keep her kid from being influenced by him. Delroy Lindo, on his third tour of duty with Lee, turns in a ferocious, yet almost childish performance as Rodney, Strike’s boss and a man whom you do not want to piss off. As Strike, Mekhi Pfeiffer holds his own against these heavyweights, but he is no physical match for Keith David, who beats him the way he beat Roddy Piper in “They Live.” The ending is a total cop-out, but in a way I completely understand Lee’s desire for some form of hope to push you out of the theater.
29. Chameleon Street (1989)- I am purposely not going to tell you very much about this film, except that you need to see it. Wendell B. Harris plays Douglas Street, a con man who managed to outwit a lot of people by pretending to be something he was not, and playing off their perceptions of him. The real Douglas Street even managed to lie his way into the operating room, where he performed numerous hysterectomies. (In the film, Harris seals the deal on the job by solving his interviewer’s Rubik’s Cube.) At times, Chameleon Street plays as if Douglas Street were pretending to be a director and shooting this film, but overall, this is a challenging, rewarding work with much to say about how Black men are perceived and how we present ourselves. Poor folks in my neighborhood were always running a side-hustle (or a full frontal hustle, even). I think this is what Harris is saying—life is one big series of cons, some fun, some tragic. Despite being a big hit at Sundance, nobody bought it and it slipped into oblivion for a while. It’s not in oblivion anymore, so you’ve got no excuse.
28. House Party (1990)- The Hudlin Brothers’ throw the titular event with rappers Kid n’ Play, and the widescreen party compositions shot by David Lynch’s cin-togger Peter Deming make you want to crawl into the screen to do the Running Man. The duo with the same first name and their own dance star as two high school buddies looking to score some chicks at Play’s House Party. The women in question are Tisha Campbell and A.J. Johnson, who, like Kid n’ Play, are fully drawn characters representing the yin and yang of the Black color wheel. DJ’ing the party is Campbell’s future co-star, Martin Lawrence. Attempting to prevent Kid from attending the jam is practically the entire universe, from schoolyard bullies played by Full Force to the cops who refer to Kid and his high top fade as “Eraserhead.” Kid’s biggest roadblock is his single father, played by the late Robin Harris (who is excellent here). Harris punishes Kid by grounding him, quoting Bobby Brown in the process to add insult to injury. Of course, Kid sneaks out, and his satirical journey allows Kid to display impeccable comic timing graced with more than a hint of pathos. He gets to the party, but he also goes to jail (where the movie’s one big misstep occurs) AND he gets a leather-based surprise from his Dad when he gets home. We get to enjoy the Hudlins’ keen observations on growing up Black. I’m especially partial to a throwaway scene involving the proper way to make Kool-Aid.
27. Glory (1989)- Granted, it follows the aggravating trend of telling a Black story from a White character’s perspective, but at least Glory has a reason: It’s based on the letters of Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), who led the all-Black 54th Volunteer Infantry of Massachusetts into battle. And what a regiment he led: Andre Braugher, Jhimi Kennedy, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington have memorable supporting turns, with the latter two relishing the back and forth between young hothead and wise older man. Washington’s Pvt. Trip is the stand-out, and after getting an Oscar nod for another (lousy) movie where he ceded the spotlight to a White character, Washington took home his first Oscar for this. Contains one of my favorite scenes in all of film, where Washington defiantly takes a beating for desertion. It was his Oscar clip, and probably why he won in the first place. I recall Pauline Kael disliking this scene, which led me to say “What the fuck are you talking about, Pauline?” for the 7 millionth time.
26. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)- After I got hooked on the Walter Mosley “Easy Rawlins” series, I wished someone would make them into a movie. Enter Carl Franklin, director of One False Move. I chose Devil over Move if only to prove that Franklin was no one-trick pony, it’s a lesser known film of his, and also because it satisfies my fantasies about being an ace private dick (stay tooned for proof that I never gave up that fantasy). Washington is damn near perfect as Rawlins, sexy, dangerous and wary, but he is upstaged (and not enough times, I may add) by Don Cheadle’s terrifying Mouse. Had Cheadle 5 more minutes in Devil in a Blue Dress, he would have completely taken over. His introduction is an amusing bit of violence: “Fraaaank,” he says to his next victim. “His name Frank, ain’t it?” he asks Easy before shooting the guy. Jennifer Beals and Lisa Nicole Carson play salt and pepper femme fatales, with the former playing the titular character. Mosley wrote 11 Easy Rawlins books, and while they were a success, the movie underperformed at the box office and no other films were made. This remains devastating to me, as Franklin the adaptor and Washington the actor were perfect fits for all the material Mosley turned out. I want to kick the studio head who turned down a sequel in the balls—or send Mouse to make him change his mind.
25. Nothing But a Man- Ivan Dixon and jazz singer Abbey Lincoln star in this rarely seen love story co-written by Robert M. Young. Every time I see it, I’m astonished by how powerful it is, even in its quiet moments. Dixon plays Duff Anderson, a railroad worker with a checkered past who meets and falls for a preacher’s daughter (Lincoln). Director Michael Roemer constructs his film as a series of parallels; there’s a sequence where Duff visits the son he’s never met, then the father he never met. The father, played by Julius Harris, is a mean drunk married to another woman (Gloria Foster) when Duff visits him. While Harris acts up under the influence, Foster is both the voice of reason and a source of brief comfort for Duff. Foster conveys so much with her face as she looks at both men with a mixture of exasperation and understanding, a look mirrored by Lincoln in more than one scene. It’s easy to see why Duff couldn’t relate to his kid in the earlier scene. Nothing But a Man is a complex love story, with both parties attempting to be strong in a marriage tested by racism, unemployment and Duff’s own troubled past. It rings so true in its depictions of Duff’s trials and tribulations that I sometimes find it too painful to watch. But it is well worth seeing.
24. Skin Game (1971)- James Garner and Lou Gossett play friends who run a con during slavery days. Gossett pretends to be a slave, and Garner sells him to make money. Then Garner helps him escape, after which they split the money. It sounds really distasteful, but Paul Bogart’s movie is a very funny satire with a dark undertone in the guise of Ed Asner’s mean slaver. That’s right, the nice old man from Up is buying Negroes! As an unusual take on race relations, Skin Game raises some interesting questions. It also provides some historical context regarding the battle of ideas between Kansas and Missouri during this time period. Garner and Gossett are game, and Brenda Sykes shows up as the one reason why the freed Gossett would consider re-enlisting as a slave. You would too. I’m going to close out this entry with my favorite lines of dialogue from this quotable, underrated flick. After the enslaved Gossett attempts to prove he’s been previously freed, he uses some SAT words. The overseer responds:
“That’s the goddamndest thing I’ve ever heard! The goddamndest thing I ever heard. I never heard a Nigra talk like that. If I ever hear it again, I’m gonna blow your Black ass off! Understand me, boy?”
23. The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 (2009)- Swedish journalist and filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson's documentary had such a profound effect on me when I first saw it that, to reconcile my thoughts, I wandered aimlessly around lower Manhattan for hours. Taking footage shot for Swedish TV, some unseen for decades, The Black Power Mixtape looks at some of the most polarizing figures of the civil rights era, those who chose not to subscribe to Martin Luther King’s notion of nonviolence as an agent for change. Olsson provides voice-over by Black musicians, writers and politicians of today while also allowing the surviving subjects to speak for themselves in present day recordings. The footage he collects from the TV interviews, some unseen for 30 years, is fascinating; these journalists are inquisitive and unbiased because they’re too green about the subject to form an opinion. This is a fact-finding mission for them, and for Olsson too. "I am not trying to tell the story about the Black Power movement,” he says. “I'm telling the story of how it was perceived in Sweden. So it's an outsider's look, from outsiders' material.” Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and others in the Black Power movement are seen both in moments of activism and moments of joking around, the latter of which humanizes them even if one doesn’t agree with their position. As I’ve stated here on this blog, I know what side of the fence I’d have been on in 1967—I truly understand why folks picked up guns. But the most interesting thing viewers may take from Mixtape is how Dr. King was seen by people in his heyday. One talking head speaks of “the Santafication of Dr. King,” and how all his rough edges and lack of popularity were swept under the rug in favor of a kinder, gentler man with a message. But make no mistake, he was perceived as just as dangerous and militant as his Black Power counterparts. I’d like to see a documentary on this idea as well.
22. Trading Places (1983)- John Landis loves Black culture (as we’ll see later) but he also cannot resist a good class and/or authority based comedy. Here he merges both, creating a fascinating argument about privilege and the impoverished. Don Ameche and his brother Ralph Bellamy make a bet over whether privilege or opportunity is responsible for success. Actually, the bet involves taking their rich colleague (Dan Aykroyd) and switching him with a con man (Eddie Murphy) off the street. They’ll give each the other man’s life and see just how quickly they start acting their new roles. With a little help, Murphy is making business deals (“oh, y’all a couple of bookies,” he says after Bellamy explains what his company does), and Aykroyd is forced into a life of crime and—gasp!—dealing with regular people. Trading Places is a sharper satire than it’s given credit for; it has something powerful to say about how unbalanced the scales are in relation to your birthplace and your birthright. It almost says that the American dream of getting rich is bullshit unless you have help from the people who refuse to give it to you. Unless, of course, they’re betting on your success or failure. The impoverished have become either a commodity or a nuisance in Trading Places, which still makes it timely today. Oh, and it’s funny as shit. This is Murphy’s best movie, but not my favorite of his.
21. No Way Out (1950)- The other 1950 movie for which Joe Mankiewicz was nominated for an Oscar finds Sidney Poitier in a role I wouldn’t have expected many Blacks to play at the time. He’s a doctor whose emergency room White patient dies in his care. The patient’s brother, Richard Widmark, is part of a family of racists that includes Blue Collar’s Harry Bellaver (here playing a deaf mute whose signed, racist taunts Mankiewicz refuses to translate). They think Dr. Sidney killed their brother, and set out to destroy a man who worked hard to get where he is, yet whom they feel is less entitled to it than a White man who didn’t work hard at all. As with Billy Wilder in Ace in the Hole, co-screenwriter Lesser Samuels brings out the razor-edged brutality in Mankiewicz; the director visually treats Poitier’s examination of his patient as a violation seen through the eyes of the Whites in this racially tense town. No Way Out has stunning imagery for 1950: In addition to the examination, there’s a race riot where the Black part of town is invaded by an angry mob of Whites who immediately get their asses beaten. Poitier and Widmark’s final showdown is intense and ugly, with Linda Darnell a standout as a conflicted woman whose own enlightenment slips into darkness when reunited with her racist past. Before seeing it on TCM, I had never heard of this film nor had I ever seen Sidney this angry and militant onscreen. It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to see another side of the man who would become the biggest Black star in old Hollywood. I can only imagine how hard it hit people back in 1950, for it slapped the shit out of me decades later.
Next time: 20-11.