(click here for all posts)
Sorry for the delay! We're here in the top 10 now, and while there are a few surprises, you all should have known what number one was going to be. Here are links to the other four entires:
We start this list with probably the most jaw-dropping title on the list.
10. Claudine (1974)- Claudine crept into theaters amidst a sea of action-oriented Blaxploitation movies. Originally a vehicle for Diana Sands (and what a movie that would have been), Claudine cast Sands’ own suggestion, Diahann Carroll alongside a pre-Darth Vader James Earl Jones. On paper, Carroll would seem too bougie to play a woman with six kids on welfare. Carroll obliterates this notion, giving a down-to-earth, lived in (and Oscar-nominated) performance. Romantic comedies of any stripe really didn’t exist for Blacks, and while Claudine fits the rom-com mold in a lovely, old-fashioned way, it dives head first into some very thorny issues. The individual romantic selfishness of both Claudine and Jones’ Roop is reaped by the innocent children both of them produce. Claudine keeps shacking up with men who leave her, sometimes with an extra mouth to feed, and Roop is far from an ideal father to the kids he rarely sees. The cynicism on the faces of Claudine’s older children when Roop comes to pick her up is juxtaposed with the optimism of her younger kids’ yearning for a father figure. Yet we root for Roop and Claudine, for they seem to be each other’s correctives. Jones and Carroll, for all their comedic lines and situations, remain rooted in a gritty working class reality; their Meet Cute is more like a Meet Real. Together, they’re dynamite onscreen--sexy, charming, and infuriating--with their stations in life instantly recognizable to ‘hood audiences. Only Claudine could get romantic foreplay mileage out of a bottle of Joy dishwashing detergent, and only this film can manage to balance romance with a scathing satire on government bureaucracy. Heartwarming, heartbreaking and hilarious, Claudine is not only my favorite Black romantic comedy, it may be my favorite romantic comedy, period.
9. Sounder (1972)- Every viewing of Sounder reduces me to tears both of anger and joy. Martin Ritt’s understated direction and John Alonzo’s stunning widescreen cin-tog give the actors space—literally and figuratively—to communicate all manner of emotion subtly. This subtleness is all the more effective because it quietly imbues Sounder with an unshakeable moral outrage. These characters have to take whatever life throws at them, and do so without complaint. The movie does too. As a result, weariness is physically rendered upon the carriages of its characters. The three lead performers, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks and the great Cicely Tyson, make you feel not only the world on their shoulders but the occasional moments of cathartic, unbridled joy. So many scenes in Sounder evoke response simply by depicting the scenarios adapted by Lonne Elder III from William H. Armstrong’s novel. Ritt’s matter-of-factness is both disturbing and effective, and his actors deliver for him in astonishing, beautiful (and Oscar nominated) ways. Sounder contains two of the most heartfelt hugs I’ve ever seen on film, with Winfield’s Nathan Lee the recipient of both. The first is between father and son, with Hooks’ David Lee accepting a freedom of sorts from his father. The second is the reason you should watch Sounder, a reunion between Tyson and Winfield that Tyson plays to the hilt. The physicality of her emotional relief is so powerful that it nearly stops the viewer’s heart. Tyson runs with reckless abandon toward Winfield, grabbing him so fiercely that you can almost feel Tyson’s arms around you in the audience, the ultimate emotional consummation between the viewer and the film.
8. In the Heat of the Night (1967)- 1967 was Sidney Poitier’s year, with three hits that showcased his versatility as an actor. Poitier courted racial controversy in two of the features, appearing as a Negro more perfect than Mary Poppins in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and as detective Virgil Tibbs in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. The former had Sidney using his hands to hold his White fiancée, the latter had him delivering The Slap Heard ‘Round the World to a White actor who slapped him first. Neither played well in the South, where In the Heat of the Night was originally slated to be shot. Moving the shooting location to Illinois from Mississippi was as smart a move as Poitier taking this role. Harkening back to his angry performance in No Way Out 17 years prior, Poitier delivers a character far removed from the safer roles that endeared him to certain types of White audiences. Here, Poitier is defiant, an uppity Negro who demands respect (“They call me MISTER Tibbs!!”) and flaunts that he is smarter than all those White cops who originally accused him of the murder he’ll eventually solve. Oscar winner Rod Steiger in the audience stand-in, a blatantly bigoted cop whose sense of entitlement is injured first by Poitier’s paycheck, then by his big city detective skills. It all leads to the moment where, in an unscripted bit of business, Poitier broke the biggest taboo of beloved Black actors. Virgil Tibbs rises above his station and slaps the shit out of a White man of privilege onscreen. Black audiences reported erupted with cheers, and I think this scene alone may have been responsible for Poitier’s return to good graces with Black audiences. In The Heat of the Night is my second favorite Best Picture Oscar winner, and the only one that deals with race relations in a credible, realistic fashion. (If you think Crash does, please do a Sidney and slap the shit out of yourself.) Steiger and Poitier’s last scene together is a fine moment of under-the-surface things best left unsaid; it may have secured Steiger’s Oscar. Night is also notable for delivering an Oscar to editor Hal Ashby, who later directed another important staple of Black-themed cinema, 1970’s The Landlord.
7. Blazing Saddles (1974)- President Obama needs to watch this movie again. (I’m sure he’s seen it.) If he’s Black Bart, then the GOP doubles as the “God-fearing citizens of Rock Ridge” who, in the words of Dom DeLuise’s wife, “take issue with your choice of Sheriff!” I guess that makes the wonderful Gene Wilder’s Waco Kid, aka “The Deputy Spade,” all those liberal White folks who have “White guilt,” which makes them associate with Black folks. Regardless of how you slice the allegory, Blazing Saddles is an eerily prescient depiction of the majority’s reaction when somebody “different” is suddenly in power, be they a homosexual, a woman or, in the case of Cleavon Little’s Black Bart, a “suave urbanite.” Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest, most politically incorrect movies ever made, and if I had two choices of movies to have with me on a desert island, it would be my second choice. (My #1 desert island movie tops this list—stay tooned!) Director Mel Brooks is in full control of the seemingly chaotic proceedings, crafting a credible oater out of the spare parts of leftover Westerns. And while racial slurs get thrown around for laughs, Brooks also uses them in one scene of genuinely effective heartbreak. Brooks and his co-conspirators, including actress Madeline Kahn and writers Andrew Bergman (who came up with the idea) and Richard Pryor (who wrote the film’s best line) get away with murder because they treat racists like the idiots they are. And while Bart’s nemesis, Hedley Lamarr, refuses to surrender to the monster he created by suggesting Bart for Sheriff, the citizens of Rock Ridge rally behind their leader in a show of solidarity they’d only do for one other person, Randolph Scott. This is a movie I can quote verbatim, from beginning to end, and it never gets tired for me.
6. Hoop Dreams (1994)- On my 1994 Ten Best list, I agonized over which films would be numbers 2 and 1. My choices were Pulp Fiction and Hoop Dreams. I had incredibly visceral reactions to both films, with the former filling me with a cinephile’s joy and the latter making me cry so hard I had to leave the theater to get tissue. My eyes were so blurry with tears I accidentally walked into the ladies’ room. In the end, I chose Pulp Fiction as #1 simply because QT had to create that from whole cloth while documentary filmmaker Steve James had a little help from forces beyond their control. In hindsight, I was probably mistaken about my decision. Hoop Dreams continues to haunt me in ways no other documentary has. This could have taken place in my neighborhood. I knew these people, and their struggles, trials and successes were MY struggles, trials and successes. I wanted to know what happened to William Gates and Arthur Agee, the two subjects for whom basketball may be the key to catapult them from the hood hustle to a lucrative career as a baller. For so many hoodrats like myself, sports seemed to be a potential way out, a stepping stone to pull you and yours into a better life. Well, for me, it wasn’t, as I’m way too blind to have been a pro at any sport, but as a kid I remained fixated on Black sports heroes. I looked at them and felt envy, but also the nagging feeling that I was going to have to use my brain to make a name for myself. That thought terrified me, and Hoop Dreams brought it all back in one fell swoop as I sat in the dark with other equally affected audience members. (One of them bummed some ladies’ room tissue off me.) Though nominated for editing, the Academy did itself no favors by not nominating Hoop Dreams in the Best Documentary category.
5. Eve’s Bayou (1997)- Yet another instance when I was torn between two movies for my number one spot on my ten best list for that year. Eve’s Bayou wound up as my runner up, behind LA Confidential, but again in hindsight, I was probably wrong. Then and now, however, I was right about Debbi Morgan’s performance. It is one of the greatest performances given by an actress. She provides the balancing half of director Kasi Lemmons’ two-sided Southern Gothic tale. The other side is Sam Jackson in his sexiest role (yes, the man can be sexy, especially in Lemmons’ films). Eve’s Bayou takes over your imagination, creating a fully realized world heretofore unseen on the screen, at least with brown faces. Lemmons’ tale of the voodoo of selective memory and perception grabs you from its opening lines, immersing the viewer in the world of the Batistes. These well-to-do bayou residents have a generational tie to the titular location, and Amy Vincent’s cin-tog captures both the hazy heat and the hazy memories introduced by our narrator. The magical realism of Morgan’s Mozelle and her ability to see everyone’s future but her own has a counterpart in her brother Louis’ refusal to see a future that requires no magic to decipher. Jackson’s Louis has kinship with Donald Sutherland’s character in Don’t Look Now, that is, he is a man who refuses to give in to his own emotional observations until it Is fatally too late. Lemmons delivers a masterpiece that deserves mention in the same breath as other classics of this genre.
4. Do The Right Thing (1999)- I’ve written so much about Do The Right Thing already that I’m simply going to say this: Spike Lee’s best film so terrified critics that they thought the streets were going to run red with the blood of White America. Gil Scott-Heron’s revolution was FINALLY going to be televised! This ridiculous reaction, by critics who are still writing today, is amusing considering Lee’s even-handed treatment of the subject of race in America. The title itself should be applied to all of Lee’s characters; we should ask if they heeded Da Mayor’s (Ossie Davis) advice to Lee’s Mookie: “Always do the right thing.” What is “the right thing,” and does anybody employ it? This is the question I always ask myself while watching it, and the fact that the answers aren’t easy is what gave the wolf-crying idiots I mentioned earlier their sense of panic. Do The Right Thing is an American classic in that its day in the life plot masks a masterful construction of comedy, horror, and intense drama. Ernest Dickerson’s cin-tog makes you feel as hot and agitated as the characters, so when violence erupts, it is no surprise. Lee’s decision to cast himself as the one who throws the trash can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria is partially the reason for his reputation as a troublemaker in Hollywood. (Spike himself shoulders most of the blame, however.) Do The Right Thing pulls you through a gamut of emotions, and while it offers no easy answers, the questions it raises will be asked for years to come. This is the film whose shadow Lee has been trying to wriggle from under after all these years, but what a shadow to be under.
3. Imitation of Life (1959)- Death is The Great Equalizer. Like in Gone are the Days, Imitation of Life presents an integrated funeral for one of its beloved characters, Annie Johnson (Oscar nominee Juanita Moore). Ms. Johnson has succumbed to a broken heart, an appropriate fate in a film by melodramatic sadist Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s films are never about what they appear to be on the surface, and Imitation of Life’s subtle switcheroo from the rather bland story of its White family led by Lana Turner to the emotional powerhouse of its Black characters’ tale is truly subversive. Its passing for White subplot looms ever larger as the film unspools, and the death of Annie Johnson is the moment the viewer realizes which characters truly hold Sirk’s interest. Johnson’s longtime friend Lora Meredith (Turner) grants the deceased her dying wish, a huge funeral. Gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson sings on behalf of departed souls everywhere, and with every viewing, this is the moment I lose it. As Ms. Johnson’s casket is carried through the streets, Sirk plays his trump card against the status quo of the time. This is, as my grandmother once told me, the grandest funeral ever given a cullud woman onscreen. Annie Johnson’s life carried as much weight as her White counterparts, Sirk seems to be saying. Granted, this magnificent setting is a setup for Imitation of Life’s final gut-punch, delivered in the guise of Susan Koehner’s Sarah Jane doing the coffin leap so popular at Baptist funerals. “I killed my mother!” she yells, and though her agony is always tempered by my anger for her character, I realize that Sarah Jane is the only character who undergoes any change in Imitation of Life. Her acceptance of her unforgiveable Blackness comes at the highest price possible, the loss of the best person to instill and rebuild her Black pride. Sarah Jane is the film’s true tragedy.
2. The Color Purple (1985)- In spite of its occasional cartoonish depictions of negritude, The Color Purple remains one of the most beloved movies of “folks.” Critics stunned by the success of Tyler Perry were obviously not paying attention. With its downtrodden female characters, evil men, musical numbers and blatant gospel message, The Color Purple is the ultimate Tyler Perry movie. It’s a bootleg, ass-out ghetto fabbuhlous Beacon Theater gospel play helmed by a director at the height of his emotional powers. Yes, the edges are sanded off Alice Walker’s brilliant, epistolary novel. Yes, it is sometimes too pretty for its own good. Yes, its emotions are sometimes naïve. But my heart doesn’t care. Steven Spielberg kicks ass here, giving the old-school Hollywood treatment to a story of people of color. This film has everything, and for starved Black audiences like the ones who eventually gravitated toward Mr. Perry’s batshit, imperfect sermons, it’s a five course meal complete with dessert. The Color Purple is epic moviemaking, with spectacular acting across the board and unforgettable set pieces. The sequence where Miss Celie takes her revenge at the dinner table is so many things at once: A roundtable featuring 70’s cinema icons Margaret Avery and Adolph Caesar passing the torch to the next generation; an almost comical usage of the superstitious malarkey familiar to so many Black folks; a cathartic release for one character and the welcome return to normalcy for another; and one helluva crowd-pleaser. When Whoopi Goldberg’s Miss Celie finally stands up to Danny Glover’s Mr., you could hear a pin drop in my theater. When Goldberg yelled out “I'm poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I'm here. I'm here,” the roof nearly flew off my theater, with people applauding and yelling “Amen!” Shit like this is why I go to the movies, and no amount of bitching about technicalities will ever trump a response like the one I have whenever I watch The Color Purple. And I’ll dig myself even deeper here by stating that I love Oprah in this movie. Miss Sofia is the heart of The Color Purple, and seeing Miss Celie inspire her defiant spirit to return after so much misery made me want to cheer. They should have given her that damn Oscar instead of the honorary one she has no reason to get now.
1. Coming to America (1988)- This shouldn’t be a surprise to readers of this site. The most hate mail I’ve ever received isn’t for my takedown of The Help or any of the political satire pieces I’ve done here. It’s for my article on this film. There was an incredible amount of outrage because I called Coming to America “the Blackest movie ever made.” I was called all manner of racist because people thought I was implying that nobody else can appreciate it. My piece explicitly did not say that, so to quote Eddie Murphy: Fuck y’all. No matter. Murphy’s hilarious tour of Planet Ghetto casts his Prince Akeem as the audience stand-in. Anyone unfamiliar with the quirky, funky characteristics of ‘hood life will get an education at the same time Akeem does. Whether it’s the church beauty pageant, or the reverse-engineering hustle of Cleo McDowell’s Mickey D’s ripoff, or the barbershop from where many of Coming To America’s most quoted lines come, Coming to America never steps wrong in its depiction of an environment folks like me know all too well. Toss in multiple comedic roles for both Murphy and Arsenio Hall, a sweet love story, James Earl Jones and his frequent onscreen love interest, Madge Sinclair as royalty, jHeri Curl juice stains and John Amos as a huge golddigger, and you have pure comic gold. John Landis and company give us such a beautiful, Ebony fairy tale. Africa is presented as a huge, glamorous heaven, with peace, riches and exorbitant costume design. From there, an African comes to America in a manner unlike any of the ancestors of the people he’d meet in Queens. And when he gets here, he finds love, opportunity and camaraderie amongst the hood denizens who see him as one of their own. In the real world, Akeem would have been rundown and depressed two weeks into this journey. But here, Akeem never loses his optimism. Murphy gives him a sweetness we’d later see in Sherman Klump, and when he walks down the street singing Jackie Wilson, he reminds you of your own moments of falling in love Landis even manages to toss in his usual class commentary, with Jones (who gets so many good lines here) and Amos representing true bougie and wannabe bougie. “This is America, jack!” yells Amos at the snooty, rich King James Earl. “Say something else about my daughter and I’ma break my foot off in your royal ass!” If I were trapped on a desert island, this is the movie I’d want with me. Not only would it remind me of the characteristics of my old ‘hood that I’d miss, it would also remind me of the kind of unified America I wish truly existed.
|I shall now return to the Fortress of OdieTude|