Landmark Films About the Fight for Racial Equality


Unavoidably, it happened that I was overseas on November 4th, a development that infuriated me. Though I got my vote in early, I so wanted to be on my native soil to witness what I hoped and expected would be a transformative moment in our country's history.

In hindsight though, I wouldn't think of trading the almost surreal experience of pulling an all-nighter in an Italian hotel room to watch the election outcome. Because the next morning, I had the somewhat eerie but also exhilarating sense that people were actually looking at me differently. And of course I felt different too. When Italians I encountered realized I was American, I received spontaneous, joyful shouts of "Obama!" Then it struck me: with one concerted, collective action over the course of a single day, our national reputation had received an enormous bounce. Suddenly, it seemed, we were the land of hope and limitless possibility again, and once more, I felt proud to be an American.

In characterizing Obama's victory, the international press focused less on the repudiation of eight years of corrosive Republican rule, more on the significance of the most powerful country on earth electing an African-American to its highest office. And after all the Republican bashing we've heard-however justified -- this felt all the more appropriate.

While our younger citizens turned out in record numbers to help push Barack over the top, I had to wonder whether they (or indeed their parents) fully understood that those tears coursing down Jesse Jackson's cheeks on election night did not materialize just from sheer joy, but from a more complex and painful awareness of all the oppression, bloodshed and suffering that led up to this momentous breakthrough.

With this in mind, I surveyed, and selected the best films, documentaries and mini-series that each in their way illuminate the centuries-old struggle for racial freedom and equality in America.

Of course, prior to the 1960's, race portrayals in movies were mostly confined to servants and railroad porters. Only with the advent of the Civil Rights movement did the film industry dare address the black experience. At this point, Sidney Poitier emerged as the first black movie star, whose roles advanced a new image of the black man, reflecting intelligence, pride, and dignity.

Daniel Petrie's "A Raisin In The Sun" (1961) provided an ideal star vehicle for Poitier's explosive talent. Sidney portrays an ambitious, tightly coiled young man counting on his mother's small nest-egg to invest in a business which could lift his family out of their dead-end existence. The actor projects barely suppressed rage as he pleads with his resolute mother (Claudia McNeil), who wants to use the money to buy a new home. We feel Poitier's raw desperation as he sees his one chance to better himself slipping away. Watch this moving piece for Poitier's intense performance, and McNeil's equally fiery and arresting turn as the family matriarch.

Three years later, director Michael Roemer would release an independent film called "Nothing But A Man", addressing the challenge of black men sustaining loving relationships when discrimination and feelings of futility consume them with anger. Duff (Ivan Dixon), a black railroad worker, meets Josie (Abbey Lincoln), a shy preacher's daughter. They fall in love, but soon Duff's frustration with his prospects boils over, challenging the relationship. With grace and feeling, this lean, under-exposed film details how the couple navigates these choppy waters to find a measure of happiness. Look for the late Julius Harris, who's superb as Duff's failed, drunken father.

In the 1970s, television would do as much as feature films to advance the understanding of black history in this country. Perhaps best remembered is the wildly successful, landmark adaptation of Alex Haley's novel "Roots" into a six-part, ten hour mini-series in 1977, which took viewers back to the dawn of the slave trade that first brought blacks to our shores in bondage. Over thirty years after first airing, this remarkable work has lost none of its searing impact.

Another superior television production you can view in one sitting is 1974's "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman", a true story which traces the life of one stalwart woman from a childhood in slavery all the way through to the Civil Rights movement. In Jane's eventful story lies an invaluable history lesson, one of endurance through suffering and upheaval, culminating in Jane's becoming a witness to positive change. The gifted Cicely Tyson is a marvel in the title role, as over the course of the film she ages from a young girl to a spry old lady of 110! She deservedly won an Emmy Award for her work, and the film itself won eight more.

Four years later, Tyson would team with actor Paul Winfield for another top-notch mini-series, "King", aired in three 90 minute installments. Written and directed by the talented Abby Mann, the film vividly recreates Dr. Martin Luther King's mystical odyssey from spirited young Baptist preacher to anointed spokesman for the vast non-militant wing of the Civil Rights movement. The revelation here is the extent to which King did not choose his thorny path, but was chosen, both by his own people and, seemingly, a higher power. Winfield and Tyson (who'd starred together in the fabulous "Sounder" six years prior) are both first-rate as Martin and Coretta, and along with Mann's incisive script and a stellar supporting cast, they make "King" a fascinating and memorable experience.

To round out your understanding of this legendary figure, also catch "Citizen King" (2004), a riveting PBS "American Experience" entry. I found watching this particularly intriguing after first screening "King", noting not just Abby Mann's fidelity to real events, but also the subtle differences between Winfield's portrayal and the real man, who seemed smaller, more serious, and infinitely sadder than the actor, but whose soaring oratory still sounds like noone I've ever heard -- not even Obama!

Still, even in the seventies, important works of African-American cinema had to be made independently, on a shoestring, but the quality and pathos could still shine through. A perfect example is the heartbreaking "Killer Of Sheep" (1977), a film whose simple story manages to wrench the spirit: living hand to mouth in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) toils at a slaughterhouse, where the dispiriting and mind-numbing routine of dispatching livestock leaves him emotionally remote from his wife (Kaycee Moore) and young son. Under these circumstances, life's pleasures come in small and unexpected ways. Charles Burnett's tender, affecting film, a landmark in American independent cinema, really hasn't much of a plot, content instead to observe the melancholic daily existence of an impoverished African-American neighborhood. But its neorealist aesthetic, lugubrious pace, and minimal storyline are the ingredients for a surprisingly moving film that depicts ghetto life with lasting beauty and authentic humanity.

As the 1980's progressed, so did the careers of two figures whose work would further the cause of black awareness: actor Denzel Washington and director Spike Lee. In 1989, Washington would attain stardom after winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as a defiant soldier in Edward Zwick's "Glory", which recounts the true story of the the Civil War's first black fighting regiment. (That same year, Lee boosted his own visibility with "Do The Right Thing", a contemporary drama about underlying racial tensions in Brooklyn that need only a chance incident on a sweltering day to ignite.)

Lee and Washington would join up three years later to make the stunning, epic-scale "Malcolm X". This three and a half hour feature carries us from Malcolm Little's unpromising beginnings as a Harlem gang-member through his religious conversion in prison, marriage to Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), and eventual ascension to chief spokesman for the nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.) Like his contemporary Dr. King, Malcolm faced constant danger and opposition from whites and blacks alike; unlike King, he did not believe non-violence alone would advance the cause of his people. A transformative pilgrimage to Mecca ultimately puts Malcolm at odds with his leader, which helps seal his own fate. The Oscar-nominated Washington delivers a towering portrayal of the militant leader, and bears an almost uncanny resemblance to the real Malcolm, while Lee's inspired direction creates an electric impact and immediacy that brings us breathtakingly close to this tumultuous chapter in history.

In his devastating documentary "4 Little Girls" (1997), director Lee goes on to profile a horrific true incident from 1963, when a Baptist Church in Birmingham was blown up, killing four young girls attending Sunday School. This heart-rending episode is recalled via reminiscences of the girls' families and friends, while others comment on the event's broader significance in reinvigorating the movement at a critical juncture, and accelerating the passage of vital civil rights legislation. This haunting and revealing testament is not be missed.

Lest we forget, before the rise of Dr. King and Malcolm X, there was Thurgood Marshall. Before becoming the nation's first black Supreme Court Justice, Marshall was an overworked, underpaid lawyer for the NAACP. In the early 50s, he took an isolated case from rural South Carolina all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in the historic 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision which held that school segregation was unconstitutional. In "Separate But Equal" (1991), a three hour TV movie first aired in two parts, Sidney Poitier plays Mr. Marshall, and predictably, does him proud. This outstanding film is also notable for featuring Burt Lancaster in his final role as John Davis, the veteran lawyer who opposes Marshall in our country's highest court. Also look for the late Richard Kiley in a measured, dignified turn as Chef Justice Earl Warren.

Finally, as with "Roots", we end where it all began: "Africans In America" (1998), a six hour, four part documentary series, penetrates deep into the history of slavery, recounting how this poisonous phenomenon evolved in the American colonies in the seventeenth century. We learn how it gradually grew and prospered to the point where it became both a key part of the new country's economic engine, and a practice that otherwise freedom-minded people engaged in as a matter of course. The latter episodes show the institution's slow unraveling, culminating in the Civil War and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Narrated by Angela Bassett, and including commentary by Colin Powell and some of our country's top historians, this exhaustive, meticulously researched series constitutes compulsory viewing for anyone interested in a detailed understanding of how slavery was allowed to flourish here for two hundred years. The cumulative power of "Africans" lies in reminding us that sustained patterns of injustice do not happen suddenly or in a vacuum; they sneak into the social fabric due to various societal needs, attitudes and conditions, and grow quietly but steadily, like a cancer. Don't let this demanding but immensely rewarding series pass you-or your children-by. It offers vital lessons we should never forget.

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