For Black History Month, Ten Key Films on the African-American Experience

With Martin Luther King's birthday just past us, and Black History month coming up, the time seems right to celebrate those invaluable films that shed light on the black community's long struggle for equal rights in this country.

Even for those of us who think we know the story well, it's one that always bears repeating, both for ourselves and our children, and an assortment of outstanding movies on DVD can help.

Until the early sixties, the portrayal of black characters in movies was confined to servants, porters, and other similar stereotypes. With too rare exceptions, only with the advent of the Civil Rights movement did the film industry wake up and begin to show black people as three-dimensional characters endowed with intelligence and pride.

The 10 key titles listed here, which combine documentary and narrative forms, bear authentic witness to the black experience, past and present, while lending crucial perspective on their courageous fight for the kind of freedom and opportunity that white people have always taken for granted.

A Raisin In The Sun (1961) -- Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier) is a proud but frustrated young man counting on his recently widowed mother, Lena (Claudia McNeil), to let him invest her $10,000 life-insurance check in a business which could lift him and his family out of their dead-end existence. Despite her son's entreaties, Lena plans to buy a home and leave Chicago's South Side for good, stoking Walter's anguish and resentment. Based on Lorraine Hansberry's play, Daniel Petrie's magnificent A Raisin In The Sun provides an ideal star vehicle for young Poitier's explosive talent. The actor projects barely suppressed rage as he pleads with Claudia McNeil's resolute matriarch, who wants to use her money to buy a new home. Poitier's raw desperation is palpable as his one chance to better himself slips away. See this for Poitier's intense performance, and McNeil's equally powerful turn as his mother. Ruby Dee also scores as Ruth, Walter's long-suffering wife.

Nothing But A Man (1964) -- In this landmark independent film by Michael Roemer, Duff (Ivan Dixon), a struggling black railroad worker meets Josie (Lincoln), a shy, refined preacher's daughter. They fall in love, but soon Josie must adjust to Duff's frustration as he faces discrimination in a repetitive, dead-end job. How they surmount these obstacles and stay together shines a penetrating light on the black experience of the time. A lean film of unusual grace and power, thanks to a perceptive script and solid characterizations. Both Dixon and jazz singer Lincoln give heartfelt portrayals as Duff and Josie, and look for the late, great Julius Harris playing Duff's drunk, delinquent father. Nothing is an inspiring work of cinema that helped fuel the Civil Rights era, and still speaks volumes today.

The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) -- Originally a TV movie, "Pittman" traces the life of the title character from a childhood in slavery all the way through to the civil-rights movement. The film begins in 1962 as an aged Pittman is visited in her Baton Rouge home by journalist Quentin Lerner (Michael Murphy), who, vetting material for a book, prompts her recall of events both tragic and inspiring. The gifted Cicely Tyson is a marvel as Jane, gradually transforming from a young girl to a wizened but still spirited lady of 100+ years. A revealing history lesson and tribute to the sturdy spirit of one human being who endured through periods of vast change, this important and touching film feeds both brain and heart. Widely recognized as a creative milestone in television programming, Pittman makes for ideal family viewing.

Killer Of Sheep (1977) -- Living hand to mouth in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) toils at a slaughterhouse, where the dispiriting, 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. New to DVD, Charles Burnett's tender, affecting film, a landmark in American independent cinema, 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 an authentic sense of humanity. Both touching and heartbreaking, with a sweet jazz score setting a mood of inner yearning, the under-exposed Killer of Sheep should be at the top of your must-see list.

Say Amen, Somebody
(1982) -- The unparalleled joy and healing power of gospel music is brought to life in this uplifting documentary. Part-history lesson, part-revival meeting, the movie not only stresses the importance of this musical form in people's spiritual lives, but also allows us to see its transforming effect in the here and now. Regardless of anyone's race or creed, this entry provides rare nourishment for the soul, as we listen to its infectious practitioners, both young and old. Especially poignant are the respective presences of "Professor" Thomas Dorsey, then over eighty, and "Mother" Willie May Ford Smith, a hearty seventy-nine. With its message of love and hope made contagious, Director George Nierenberg fashions a touchingly human and inspiring portrait that translates how this special music has sustained (mainly) African-American people through adversity for so long. A humbling and glorious achievement.

Eyes On The Prize (1987) -- This six-episode PBS miniseries provides an in-depth look at the American Civil Rights movement, covering the storied struggles during the insurgent years from 1954-1965, and culminating in the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Interviews with participants both legendary and obscure are interwoven with now iconic archival footage to provide a full picture of the fight. We revisit the marches, bus boycotts, and the tortuous path to school integration, and hear the inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr. ring out once again across the decades. This justly lauded Emmy winner is the definitive document for anyone wishing to fully understand this tumultuous moment in history, and that should be most everyone. Its detailed, rigorous recounting of a seminal period in American history covers topics and events often glossed over in history class, such as the Emmett Till murder trial and how race played a role at the contentious 1964 Democratic Convention. It also does full justice to the legacy of spiritual leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, whose proud defiance sparked a movement. Perhaps most important, Eyes gives voice to the average citizens who participated -- those who helped changed history, but never received recognition for it. We should all prize -- and watch -- this landmark work of remembrance.

Glory (1989) -- This is the true story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), son of Massachusetts abolitionists, who's appointed to lead the first black regiment for the Union in the Civil War. Before this group is able to prove their mettle in battle, Shaw must fight injustice within the Union hierarchy, as superior officers doubt the regiment's ability to fight and seem unwilling (at first) to even equip them properly. Ultimately, Shaw's faith in his men is borne out heroically. Edward Zwick's vivid Civil War epic boasts terrific battle sequences, but aside from the story's inherent fascination, what sets this movie apart is the incredible acting glimpsed in between the gunfire. Broderick brings to Shaw a nuanced mix of determination and vulnerability, but Denzel Washington virtually steals the picture as a defiant enlisted man. (He won an Oscar for this.) Morgan Freeman also shines as a wise, seasoned regimental sergeant. Glory delivers both rousing entertainment and a vital history lesson, in one winning package.

Malcolm X (1992) -- Ambitious film chronicles the remarkable life of murdered civil-rights leader Malcolm X (Denzel Washington), born Malcolm Little, from his early years in a Harlem gang to his religious conversion during a stint in prison, marriage to Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), and eventual rise to fame as a controversial orator and spokesman for the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.). A life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, however, not only upends Malcolm's radical views of race, but tragically puts him on the outs with his mentor. Built around a commanding performance by star Washington, Spike Lee's Malcolm X is the writer-director's most ambitious, impassioned film to date, as it presents a turbulent and eventful life filled with self-transformation. The Oscar-nominated Washington never lets you forget his hero's fiery charisma, the emotional impact and candor of his speeches, or the resentment he faced from both sides of the racial divide. With a top-notch cast, and Ernest Dickerson's fluid camerawork creating immediacy, Malcolm X bristles with energy and impact.

4 Little Girls (1997) -- Spike Lee's documentary revisits a shocking crime that shook the nation in 1963, when a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama was blown up, killing four African-American girls. The film combines reminiscences of the girls' families and friends with observations on the times and the event's broader significance within the Civil Rights movement. Girls may be heartbreaking to watch, but it's also essential viewing, as director Lee revisits an atrocity we should never forget. The overwhelming sense of personal loss and moral outrage is palpable. It's also striking how this unthinkable tragedy accelerated the progress of civil rights, with the barbarity of the southern segregationists' act thrusting the race issue right to the front of the world stage. Ultimately, these four promising, innocent girls are seen as martyrs to the age-old struggle for racial equality. Don't miss this touching, insightful film.

Freedom Riders
(2010) -- During the turbulent Civil Rights era, over 400 men and women, black and white, challenged segregation laws by riding buses together into the Deep South. As a result of this non-violent act, these activists endured beatings, tear gas, and imprisonment. Based on the acclaimed book by Raymond Arsenault, Riders brings together interviews with the participants themselves, as well as journalists, government officials, and other first-hand witnesses. The result is a vivid account of a gallant struggle against racial injustice. While most Americans have doubtless heard of the Freedom Riders, this meticulously researched work, presented by the acclaimed PBS series American Experience, provides a level of immediacy and detail that brings the whole period back into vivid focus. Nominated for three Emmys, the film is a superb technical achievement, but more than anything else, its story of ordinary citizens taking extraordinary risks for the noblest of ideals is both affecting and profoundly humbling. This fascinating, inspirational chapter in our country's history should be required viewing for all thoughtful people, young and old.

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