Since the American Film Institute came out with its list of 100 best American films, film critics have been whining and yammering about which films should have been included on the list, and which films should have been sliced and diced into guitar picks. One of the main concerns of Black critics was the obvious omission of motion pictures with significant Black characters or films helmed by a Black director.
Now Ohio's Cleveland Library is getting into the act by compiling a list of the top 50 films, from 1950 to 1999, that feature a Black character or a Black director. And that's cool. But what about those filmmakers who won't make anyone's "best" list? Those who's goal was to simply make a statement about the Black experience. Many of their films are magnificent classics that still inspire us and force us to think? Here is a list of 10 Black movies in "random" order that blindsided audiences and shook the cookie-cutter Hollywood industry and the world to its core. All are availiable on VHS.
1. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)
Long before Spike Lee's Jungle Fever ('90) there was Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, the story of liberal white parents having to put up or shut up, when their daughter announces her fiancé is Black. The story by today's standards is a bit fluffy. But in the racial-charged '60s, director Stanley Kramer's idea of a mixed marriage wasn't necessarily the best way to set box-office records. However, Kramer did manage to protect the box office by casting handsome Sidney Poitier as a successful doctor and Spencer Tracy (his last performance) and Katharine Hepburn as the perplexed parents. Film legend Roy Glenn rounds off the cast of a break-through film that garnered Hepburn an Oscar. The filmmakers were careful to make Poitier a successful Black doctor. Wouldn't it have been more interesting to make him a blue collar working stiff?
2. Shaft (1971)
Private detective John Shaft was the Black answer to James Bond. He had women, guns and a cool theme song. He beat the hell out of bad guys in the morning, and made love to the villian's girl friends in the afternoon. With the black leather trench coat, bad attitude, snappy one-liners and smooth Bogart comebacks, Shaft was one of those pop-culture films, like Titanic ('97), if you didn't see it, you were left out of most conversations and branded an outcast. The reverse was true if you saw the two Shaft sequels that, like the Planet of The Apes series, got worse and worse.
3. Blazing Saddles (1974)
It was amazing that race riots didn't break out in the streets when Blazing Saddles road across the silver screen insulting blacks, whites, Jews, gays, Nazis -- did I leave anyone out? America was just coming out of the racially-charged '60s. But that didn't stop television's "Get Smart" writer Mel Brooks' from satirizing the old west with a Black sheriff and a bigoted western town. With the help of comedian/co-writer Richard Pryor, Brooks pulled out all the stops. Blazing Saddles lampooned every race, creed, religion -- and even managed to insult a few horses.
4. Black Like Me (1964)
A white journalist decides the only way to write about the Black experience in American was to dye his skin dark and travel through the South. Thirty-five years later, the film's well-intentions seem a bit trite and hackney. Remember Shaft, Sweet Sweetback, and Spike Lee made us grow up out of the Hollywood house Negro mentality. But in 1964, Black Like Me, based on a true story, wasn't what white-bread audiences fresh out of '50s were paying to see.
5. Superfly (1972)
He had a plan to stick it to the "Man." A coke dealer decides to quit after one last score, but the mob has more in mind than "Just Say, No To Drugs." Outrageous fashions and colorful language, Superfly was one of the first Black anti-heroes flicks. Great Curtis Mayfield soundtrack! Like Shaft, Superfly sequels can be nauseatingly hazardous and should be viewed in moderation with extreme caution.
6. Sweet, Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1971)
Before 1970 blacks were perceived as train porters, waitresses and shoe-shine boys. All of that changed in 1971 with Melvin Van Peebles' groundbreaking film, Sweetback's Baadassss Song. Sweetback was the first "commercially successful" Black-theme film that showed a black man coming out on top over the white establishment. Today, both film scholars and students can't talk about cutting edge contemporary Black directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton, Bill Duke and Reginald Hudlin without paying homage to Van Peebles.
7. Roots (1982)
Although Roots was shown on television, Alex Haley's personal and powerful black family drama was ground breaking and enlightening for its time. For six nights audiences Black and white sat captivated by the story of Kunte Kinte and the six generations of Black heritage that followed him in America.
8. The Birth Of A Nation (1915)
From the twisted viewpoint of a bitter Southerner D.W. Griffith, this groundbreaking film attempted to reveal how free blacks ruined the defeated South. What Griffith actually reveled was the power of the motion pictures upon racism and gave the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. Birth of a Nation depicted scenes where white actors, dressed as blacks, acted like monsters, and were defeated by the righteous God-fearing Ku Klux Klan.
9. Lady Sings The Blues (1972)
Lady Sings The Blues details the tragic life of 50's jazz diva Billie Holiday. Diana Ross, whose larger than life persona actually helped the film, received an Academy Award nomination for the challenging role of Billie Holiday. Movies like Sweet, Sweetback ushered in the era when Black audiences were able to see nostalgic and glamorous biopics about Blacks produced by Black companies like Motown. It's not a big thing today, but it was an triumphant achievement in 1972.
10. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Classic in your face Spike Lee -- no-holds-barred storytelling. Lee doesn't care if you're Black or white. He takes a mirror and exposes everyone's racist narrow-mindedness on the hottest day in the year in Brooklyn. An outstanding film from a young director.