Ruling film culture starts with controlling film history, so last week the New York Times announced, “Our chief critics have chosen essential movies from the 20th century that convey the larger history of black Americans in cinema.” The selection of 28 movies to match the number of days in February, Black History Month, is a cute reduction.
Reducing the image and the work of blacks in American movies limits how readers observe black achievement in cinema (and in America) to a diurnal diet of predictable attitudes: blacks are seen as curiosities, as subjects bound by society’s limit, as intellectual cannon fodder. The Times’ list is so full of patronizing liberal whoppers that it demands an informed response, one that’s not from on high or hiding its authoritarianism behind liberal good intentions.
These intentions are exposed, for thinking readers, by the list’s roughly chronological order and 20th-century span (to suggest comprehensiveness). Its many inane choices promote commercial interests by favoring film distributors who capitalize on what Harvey Weinstein called “the Obama effect” — a habit that ensures the Times’ dominance through just such trade practice and its handmaiden, hype.
Imagine the audacity of defining movies about whites in these confining terms! Or critics pre- and post-scribing the life experience shown in movies in strict terms of racial categorization, measuring them solely by such politically correct notions as “feminism” and “diversity.”
One more problem with The List: Ever since mainstream media began paying attention to black popular culture, its approving word has become the authorized source for black academia; Africana books and curricula that are created based on mainstream media’s standards return the favor of being formally recognized. (“The president know yo’ name!” exclaimed a doomed black woman in Ragtime, presaging black academics’ gratitude during the Obama years.) Academic toadying to mainstream media — from the Times to the Village Voice — has established those institutions as the gatekeepers for black academics, Afro-futurists, and bourgeois curators and programmers. So take this Better-Than List as an oppositional syllabus; countering each of the Times’ 28 favorites is a necessary correction.
The Birth of a Nation (1916) > Within Our Gates (1920)
You can’t understand cinema or America without D. W. Griffith’s groundbreaking epic. Oscar Micheaux’s film is certainly important, but dramatizing what black folks already know means less than coming to terms with what an entire culture buries inside its subconscious.
Ida B. Welles: A Passion for Justice (1989) > Zora Neale Hurston Fieldwork Footage (1928)
William Greaves’s documentary commemorates the difficult struggle of an unrecognized pioneering black journalist to expose and defy American racism. Praising authoress Hurston’s nonfiction automatically limits her ingenuity in order to fetishize misfortune.
Hallelujah (1929) and Way Down South (1939) > Showboat (1936)
King Vidor’s vérité folk musical, an experiment in cultural empathy, still ranks as one of the most beautiful films in Hollywood history. And Way Down South’s southern folktale is enhanced by the great Clarence Muse (who co-wrote the script with Langston Hughes) in a cross-dressing vaudeville routine that uncovers social traditions that, even in the good Kern-Hammerstein musical, have become an unenlightening bromide on racial deceptions.
Cabin in the Sky (1943) > Hellbound Train (1930)
Vincente Minnelli perfectly transforms black gospel into a showbiz sermon with a magnificent cast (Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Eddie Anderson, Rex Ingram, Lena Horne). It challenges the evangelical hysteria and authenticity of a low-budget, parochial curio.
Sign ’o the Times (1987) > Black and Tan (1928) and St. Louis Blues (1929)
Prince reinvented the concert film and the movie musical as an extravaganza on great modern themes from sex to salvation but with greater personal expression (and “agency”) than even the legendary black performers who preceded him in films unfortunately shoved to Hollywood’s margins.
Carmen Jones (1954) > Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946)
Otto Preminger would not tolerate Hollywood’s racist exclusion. His negro update of Bizet’s opera launched Dorothy Dandridge’s assault on the conventions of sexuality and the Western canon. No sense in pretending a rustic endeavor is as powerful.
Michael Jackson’s This Is It (2009) > Stormy Weather (1943)
Michael Jackson’s struggle against Hollywood’s modern-day blacklist ended with this posthumous tour de force. His musical vision (overseen by director Kenny Ortega) out-dazzles the film industry’s midcentury all-star segregation. And his performance equals the Nicholas Brothers’ show-stopping number in Stormy Weather.
Lost Boundaries (1949) > Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968)
William Greaves’s valiant legacy amounts to more than directing an idiosyncratic art film; he also left his mark as an actor in a trailblazing exploration of race-passing, bolder than any race movie this millennium.
The Sun Shines Bright (1953) > Intruder in the Dust (1949)
The social, racial conflicts of the Civil War haunt John Ford’s greatest film — and perhaps the greatest sound film about American history — and outshines even Clarence Brown’s very fine, already acclaimed Faulkner adaptation.
Imitation of Life (1959) > Imitation of Life (1934)
Douglas Sirk’s remake of the original version of the Fannie Hurst melodrama gets to the heart of racial pain in ways that are spectacular, irresistible, and immortal.
Band of Angels (1957) > The Defiant Ones (1958)
The 1950s sophistication of Raoul Walsh’s conflicted, mixed-race, post-bellum Civil War heroine (Yvonne De Carlo) undermines the notion that sentimental black–white brotherhood is a “foundational” myth. “Foundational” only for those whose film savvy is based on received opinion.
42 (2013) and Get on Up (2014) > The Jackson Robinson Story (1950)
Chadwick Boseman’s extraordinary double bill is more than a tribute to real-life legends Robinson and James Brown. His awesome feats of biographical daring and acting genius make Hollywood’s do-gooder meta-bio-pic pathetic — especially in hindsight. To ignore Boseman’s achievement is not progress; it perpetuates film culture’s racism.
The Cry of Jazz (1959) > Shadows (1959)
Edward Bland’s singular poetic screed on cultural appropriation shames The List from the Times, exposing its dedication to liberal sanctimony and to the totem of (John Cassavetes’s) “white genius.”
Gone Are the Days (1963) > Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)
Ossie Davis’s genius as writer and star surpasses his film-directing career. His exuberant, profound Purlie Victorious (the stage play and its nostalgically titled film adaptation) offered a promise Hollywood didn’t keep.
The Landlord (1970) > Ganja & Hess (1973)
Bill Gunn, Hollywood wiliest black maverick, wrote the definitive film on white patriarchy — a race farce no less insightful than his erotic, Afrocentric horror film. It’s easier to distance yourself from the latter.
Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973) > Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968)
Melvin Van Peebles’s brilliant, raucous Broadway revue gains home-movie virtue — a personal, original vision that goes deep into tradition and authenticity. It is aesthetically and historically more significant than his calling-card directorial debut.
Sounder (1972) > The Learning Tree (1969)
Martin Ritt’s superlative Depression-set sharecropper saga is rigorous and deeply felt, the work of art about black American experience that Gordon Parks only dreamed about but that liberal reviewers continue to underrate.
Original Gangsters (1996) > She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Larry Cohen updated his idiosyncratic Blaxploitation-era films in time to school the hip-hop era. His black urban myths — evidence of a mature and profound worldview — set a politicized standard that sophomoric Lee, even in his Buppie debut, has yet to match.
Panther (1995) and Brothers (1977) > Malcolm X (1992)
Two bio-pics about radicals (from the Black Panthers to the Soledad Brothers) keep the politics straight while Spike Lee’s undisciplined “epic” was an overlong fashion show, negritude for hipsters.
Beloved (1988) > Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Jonathan Demme’s exploration of black and female resilience, a great unapologetic art film, is truly visionary — spiritual and cathartic. But Julie Dash made an impenetrable, overly abstract catalogue of ethnic totems — black “art” for pseuds.
The Color Purple (1985) > I Am Somebody (1970)
Too humane for ideologues, Steven Spielberg’s supreme feminist fable won a mass audience by respecting their deepest feelings — as Griffith decreed — without the condescension of rubber-stamping a rhetorical documentary.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961) > Killer of Sheep (1975)
Lorraine Hansberry’s famous family-unity play, still underrated as a great American drama, gets further neglected by gatekeepers’ preference for Charles Burnett’s now overly esteemed film of black demoralization. It’s to justify their pity and sense of superiority. But Raisin’s popularity endures for good reason.
Next Day Air (2009) > House Party (1990)
Benny Boom, a music-video veteran, directed a comic crime story that fulfilled the existential possibilities in black youth culture (August Wilson meets hip-hop), as the Hudlin brothers first outlined in their beguiling but frivolous revel.
Kansas City (1996) > Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Robert Altman’s memory of race and class disparity while growing up in Kansas City resulted in a modern variant on Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright. America’s discord is haunted by the unexpectedly rousing harmonies of its native musical (and cinematic) expression. Harry Belafonte’s unforgettably corrosive gangster, named Seldom Seen, exposes Denzel Washington’s faux-noir detective flick for the phony nostalgia it is.
The Skinny (2012) > Tongues Untied (1989)
Patrik-Ian Polk’s comedy about black college friends reuniting in Harlem on Gay Pride Day fulfills the desires for acceptance and fulfillment also expressed in Marlon Riggs’s TV revue. Polk, a first-rate wit, understands Riggs’s outsider’s anxiety better than critics who prefer to see blacks and gays as victims.
Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000) > Stir Crazy (1980)
Eddie Murphy’s chameleonic brilliance at its peak was also a tribute to black family temper, giving surprising depth to the expressive potential in black folks’ humor.
Chameleon Street (1991) > Losing Ground (1982)
Wendell B. Harris’s fact-based psychodrama is the closest an American film has come to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Too real, and too reel, for film-culture gatekeepers so spooked by black male intellect that they prefer Kathleen Collins’s black female self-pity.
Little Man (2006) > The Watermelon Woman (1996)
The Wayans brothers play the dozens the way the Marx brothers played anarchy, yet their satire about fatherhood and black masculinity risks ignominy while an unfunny black lesbian “comedy” gets praised for its nonthreatening “traditions and legends.” When it comes to black movies, sexism is the great divider. And where’s the love for Melvin Van Peebles’s and Godfrey Cambridge’s Watermelon Man?
The Times’ Black List overlooks any film dealing with slavery — the historical event depicted in The Birth of a Nation’s opening slave-auction scene. No history of black experience in American movies is credible with such an omission. The excellent films that explore slavery — Skin Game, Mandingo, Amistad, The Scalphunters, Tamango — are necessary to make this survey complete. Leaving out slavery serves only one purpose: to write black movie history to the dominant culture’s advantage.