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We're in the "Top 20" now, though technically my numbers are bullshit. (Click for 50-41 or 40-31 or 30-21) They're designed to get you to take another look at certain movies--and to irritate you. Keep in mind this isn't a "Best of" list so much as a "Recommended" list. I recommend you take another look. Still, I expect trouble, which is what Big Media Vandalism is all about--we luv trubble!
20. The Blues Brothers (1980)- The best time I had at a theater in 2011 was a midnight screening of this film at the IFC Center. The theater had four (4) people in it, myself included, but I didn’t care. Seeing The Blues Brothers on the big screen for the first time since I snuck into it back in 1980 was awesome. The sound was cranked up, and since there was no one in front of me, it felt as if this were my own private screening. Like Stormy Weather, it assembled a cast of musical talent almost too big to fit in one movie. At the time Landis and Dan Aykroyd were penning the script, its musical stars were somewhat out of fashion. They existed more on the records your parents had than in the public eye. The Blues Brothers corrects that, introducing soul music celebrities to a whole new generation of kids via the fine art of multiple vehicular destruction (aka car crashes). Sure, it ushered in the disreputable genre of the “Saturday Night Live movie,” but this Mission From God serves a higher purpose. Jake and Elwood’s journey to save the orphanage is really a mission to save Cab Calloway’s job with the Penguin. Calloway raised the boys, giving them their style and their love of the music they once sang with The Blues Brothers band. To save Cab’s character, Otis, Aykroyd and the late John Belushi give the middle finger to the status quo, causing massive amounts of property damage. Landis seems to have made this movie, which wasn’t cheap, as his own mission from God to honor the music he and his stars loved. And what music it is, showcased in huge widescreen compositions and assaultive yet clear-cut editing by George Folsey Jr. Aretha Franklin, Brother Ray, and James Brown all shine. The latter’s musical number, set in a church, has a shot by Landis that drew gasps from me at that IFC screening. At the height of Brown’s number, Landis has him slide from one end of the huge movie screen to the other. The shot lasts about 4 seconds, but it was the perfect merge of two things I love most in this world, the cinema and soul music.
19. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)- I’m on record stating that Baadasssss, the Mario van Peebles’ film chronicling this film’s origin is a much better film than its subject. In fact, the most important thing about Sweet Sweetback is that it got made at all, for it changed independent and Black cinema forever. In the Hustling Hall of Fame, director Melvin van Peebles deserves a spot at the front of the room. The things he did for his visions are master classes in good old fashioned street ingenuity. Through those avenues, he managed to get a diverse crew of all races to shoot Sweetback, and even got Workman’s Comp for fucking too much on the job! What’s onscreen is sometimes an endurance test (the music, by Earth Wind and Fire and van Peebles, is at times pure torture), but the feeling it evoked in the community cannot be denied. It showed Hollywood that Black folks do indeed go to movies, especially if they’re about them, and ushered in one of my favorite genres of cinema, the Blaxploitation movie. Its ending is also worth noting, as not only does Sweet Sweetback get away (he’s on the run for murdering a cop in self-defense), he threatens to come back to collect the dues he’s owed by The Man. For a change, the brother on the run wins, and no amount of freaky looking, psychedelic cinema can undermine van Peebles’ message.
18. Shaft (1972)- van Peebles opened the door, and according to legend, MGM decided to turn their White detective Black. I put this above Sweet Sweetback for a personal reason: As much fucking as Sweet Sweetback did—and he did a LOT—I never wanted to be him. I wanted to be Richard Roundtree’s Shaft. Ike was right: He’s a bad mother-shut-yo-mouth. Sexy, tough, and yes, a private dick (told you I wasn’t giving up on my Private Dick Odie fantasies), Shaft is out to solve a kidnapping, outwit The Man and bed some sexy Mamas, all while looking so smooth he put all others to shame. Shaft opens with director Gordon Parks following Roundtree out of the Times Square MTA and into the wilds of Manhattan. With his leather coat, his attitude and his kick-ass theme music, Shaft cuts the figure of a cool cat I could look at onscreen with stars in my young eyes. He was my first movie man crush, and I haven’t gotten over it. Parks’ film mixes action with social commentary; Isaac Hayes’ vocals describe the ‘hood situation under scenes of Shaft’s investigation. Soulsville, the best song on the Shaft album, makes a stirring musical underscore to Parks’ montage (Parks himself appears here as well). For his trouble, Hayes won an Oscar for the “Theme From Shaft,” which he played at the Academy Awards while wearing a shirt made out of gold chains. For our trouble, John Singleton remade this movie and had the nerve to cast someone else as Shaft before bringing the actual Shaft back for a cameo. One look at Roundtree, who still looked superb, and I wondered why Singleton even bothered making HIS Shaft about Samuel L. Fucking Jackson.
17. Malcolm X (1992)- Idiots misunderstood Spike Lee’s use of quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at the end of Do The Right Thing. Imagine what they thought when Lee made an old fashioned epic about the latter, more openly militant civil right era figure. As the man once known as Malcolm Little, Denzel Washington gives his best performance. From hood to preacher to martyr, Washington carries this 202 minute movie on the strength of his transformations. The late Al Freeman, Jr. is eerie as Elijah Muhammad, whose religious influence and mentoring Malcolm X embraces then reconsiders. Ernest Dickerson’s cin-tog doesn’t match his masterpiece work on Lee’s Mo Better Blues, but it at least deserved an Oscar nod. Considering how poorly the Academy treated the Prince of Darkness, it’s no surprise that The Prince of Dark Skin would get even worse treatment. I can think of only one other film about Blacks that can be considered an epic (it’ll be arriving later). Though Lee’s penchant for being a provocateur appears in full force during the opening credits sequence, he mostly stands back and lets Malcolm X tell his own story (via his book The Autobiography of Malcolm X). As usual, Lee was snubbed by the awards for his most ambitious work to date, and Washington was robbed of an Oscar by another actor who knew what that felt like. Malcolm X occasionally evokes memories of old studio system biopics about real life heroes like Darryl Zanuck’s Wilson, yet its subject is far more polarizing and by default more interesting than those old biopics ever were. Lee famously requested that kids cut school to see Malcolm X, which brought almost as much attention to the movie as all that damn merchandise that turned the 24th letter of the alphabet into jackets and hats and t-shirts.
16. Coffy (1973)- 1973 brought a double dose of fine Black women kicking ass and taking names. Warner Bros. gave us the PG-rated Cleopatra Jones, with its must-see performance by Shelley Winters and its fashionable heroine played by Tamara Dobson. Competing for the mantle of the Blaxploitation era’s first heroine was American International Pictures (AIP), who managed to beat Warner Bros to the box office by releasing Coffy. (Warners got their revenge on AIP later. See Abby for details on that!) Unlike Cleo’s movie, which I’ve much love for, Coffy is a very, very, very hard R. The violence in this movie (especially its opening sequence) is still shocking. The chick doling out cases of cans of Whup-Ass is Pam Grier, an AIP staple finally getting her shot at a lead. When interviewed by Josiah Howard for his book on Blaxploitation, director Jack Hill said that he cast Grier as Coffy because “she had IT.” And she knew how to kick ass with IT too. Objectification of the heroine is a given, as this is AIP, but Coffy is oodles tougher and more violent than the three male Blaxploitation heroes who came before her. Priest from Super Fly would never have razor blades hidden in his hair (for starters, they’d either fall out of that damn UltraPerm or be dissolved by the lye) nor would Shaft pretend to seduce a criminal before blowing his head clean off. Coffy is blatantly anti-drug, with its titular nurse going after the thugs who got her 11 year old sister hooked on smack. Grier unleashes a savage howl of fury, still unsurpassed by many heroines who followed, and to my female cousins, Coffy was far more empowering than exploitative. I saw this film way too young, as did my cousins, but none of us could stop admiring Ms. Grier. We went to all her other films too, but this one is her best. Affected QT so much that he cast Grier in Jackie Brown, a movie I wish I’d put on this list somewhere.
15. Uptown Saturday Night (1974)- The first pairing of Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby is notable for so many reasons., not the least of which is that it’s funny as hell. Screenwriter Richard Wesley (who also wrote Let’s Do It Again) writes caper films for Black audiences, filled with little touches that ring true for ‘hood denizens. He also creates characters who are adults with adult problems. They may act ridiculous at times (Cosby sells some major woof tickets in this one), but unlike today’s movie adults, these guys are not written for 12 year old boys to relate to in any fashion. That alone is refreshing, but I dig jonesing on just how Black the plot details are in Wesley’s films. Here, Sidney loses a winning lottery ticket you KNOW he got from the neighborhood numbers runner. Said ticket is lifted from him during a robbery at an illegal after-hours gambling club. The thief, played by Calvin Lockhart, has a memorable voice and is probably known in crime circles. After trying a legal way to track down the ticket, by visiting Roscoe Lee Browne’s shifty politician, the guys take a tip from Browne’s ghetto fabulous wife (Paula Kelly) and decide to question members of the underworld. These figures have names like Little Seymour Pettigrew and Geechie Dan and are played by Poitier’s pals from his studio days, Harold Nicholas and Harry Belafonte. Belafonte’s Brando parody is inspired, as is Nicholas’ hyper-violent ass whipping of Poitier and the tough-talking Cosby. (The latter must be seen to be believed.) It all ends up at a church picnic, where our heroes AND our villains follow that lottery ticket into some very treacherous places. As with Let’s Do It Again and A Piece of the Action, Poitier directs, and it must be said that he’s one of the most underrated directors of the 70’s. While I admit most of his 80’s directorial work is bad enough to make one’s hair stand up like Buckwheat’s, Poitier really had an interesting run of films he directed, produced and appeared in during the 70’s cinematic renaissance.
14. A Soldier’s Story (1984)- God bless Adolph Caesar. The voice of my childhood Blaxploitation trailers and United Negro College Fund commercials plays the ultimate illusion of inclusion victim in Norman Jewison’s version of Charles Fuller’s Pulitizer Prize winning play. Though technically a mystery, A Soldier’s Story is more of a whydunit than a whodunit. The who isn’t as compelling as the why. Caesar plays Sgt. Waters, a high ranking Negro official in the Army whose murder is being investigated by Howard Rollins Jr’s Captain Davenport. It’s 1944, and the Army is still segregated, but means of promotion are still approved by White superiors. Waters has done everything he can to ensure his position, including being extremely hard on certain types of Black soldiers AND selling his soul. As Davenport runs through the potential crime scenarios, a parallel back story emerges from Caesar’s performance. His death scene takes on a darker resonance after all the details are In place. His line “they’re all gonna hate you!” is a shocking moment of self-awareness, bringing with it the destruction of this man’s house of cards existence amongst his White superiors. Whoever murdered Sgt. Waters was doing him a favor after this revelation. All he created, and all he destroyed to achieve his position is for naught. It’s a harrowing portrayal, and the Oscar nominated Caesar sears his performance into your soul. A Soldier’s Story co-stars a young Denzel Washington and Larry Riley both of whom, like Caesar, were imported from the original stage play. Pay close attention to Mr. Washington, and you’ll see the early makings of Trip, the role that won him his first Oscar.
13. Killer of Sheep (1977)- Charles Burnett’s haunting, meditative and ultimately devastating indie film was resurrected from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight as a major work by a major talent. That it is, and it evokes memories of Nothing But a Man (# 25 on this list) in its depiction of the struggles of a married Black couple. Except here, it’s a free-flowing meditation rather than a narrative. The husband (Henry G. Sanders) works long hours in a slaughterhouse, which wears him down. Whatever is left of his resolve and nerve is worn down by everything else a life in Watts has to offer. I’ve read several articles on the film’s symbolism and its relation to Italian neo-realism, and you can read those too if you want that type of information. I will take a less scholarly approach: Watching this movie, with its seemingly disconnected vignettes, was like closing my eyes and listening to jazz--different types of jazz to evoke numerous feelings within me. It almost stopped being a visual absorption and started affecting my emotional sensors directly. Maybe it’s Burnett’s mastery of mood or simply the identification with his lead character. Someday I’ll put all my thoughts down and write a piece on this film. For now, I prefer to live with all my questions and my feelings toward it, and to read others’ work to see if they come close to saying what I’ve not yet been able to say.
12. Boyz N The Hood (1991)- Compared to its counterpart, Menace II Society, John Singleton’s debut feature plays like a kinder, gentler take on the topic of violence in the inner city. But I’m far more affected by Boyz, and I can relate to its lead character played by my doppelganger, Cuba Gooding Jr., more than any familiar character I met in Menace II Society. For a first timer, Singleton effectively uses numerous cinematic devices, but for me, the most memorable aspect of Boyz N The Hood is its sound mix. The realistic background sounds of the neighborhood are punctuated by the sudden pop-pop-pop of gunfire. Just like in real-life, it’s startling and unexpected, thereby keeping you on your toes. Boyz N the Hood builds its sense of unease—I’ve never felt more uncomfortable and worried while watching a dramatic feature—and we know things can only end badly. Ice Cube is fantastic as Doughboy, the jHeri-curled bad son of Tyra Ferrell. Morris Chestnut is her favorite son, an athlete most likely to catapult out of the hood and into a professional career. While it’s easy to predict who winds up dead, the scenes after the murder are even more powerful and horrific. Boyz made me reflect on my own upbringing, and how I managed to survive my neighborhood long enough to carve out a successful career for myself. Revisiting it reminded me of all those guys like Doughboy I knew growing up, giving me an unshakable sense of survivor’s guilt.
11. Gone are the Days (1963)- My piece on the movie version of Ossie Davis’ Purlie Victorious is probably not the best piece I’ve written for the Black History Mumf series. But it’s my favorite of all the Mumf pieces. Days is a satire, and as such has been criticized for being stereotypical. But the filmmakers and the actors know just how far to go before the line breaks. Godfrey Cambridge and Sorrell Booke (yes, Boss Hogg) have the hardest roles to play, and they both hilariously excel at them. Booke’s Cap’n Cotchipee owns Cotchipee County and Cambridge’s Gitlow is his favorite darky. Gitlow is smarter than he can let Cap’n Cotchipee know, and the ol’ Cap’n is a lot scarier than we’ll know for much of Gone are the Days. Booke plays him as a both a comic buffoon and a menace, a balancing act he admirably pulls off. Said performance is even more impressive because at the beginning of Gone are the Days, Cap’n Cotchipee is dead. He died standing up, and is about to be buried the exact same way. Preacher Purlie (Davis) and his galpal Lutibelle Jenkins (Davis’ wife Ruby Dee) come back to Cotchipee’s plantation to collect money due Purlie. It’s rightfully his, but he still needs to create a scam to get it. Purlie meets up with Charlie (a fine Alan Alda), Cotchipee’s far more liberal son, and Beah Richards as Charlie’s Mammy (and the scariest person on the plantation—even Cap’n Cotchipee is scared of her). It seems as if all the Black characters are playing roles in order to outsmart those In power, a note Davis’ play makes explicit in two lines of dialogue. Gitlow’s wife says “Being colored can be a lot of fun when ain’t nobody lookin’,” and during Cotchipee’s funeral, Purlie’s eulogy echoes the film’s theme: “and do what you can for the White folks.” To truly understand why he says that, and why it’s not offensive, you’ll need to watch this hilarious little sleeper. Remade as a Tony winning musical starring Cleavon Little, Melba Moore and Sherman Hemsley as Gitlow.
Next time: the "Top 10"