Preston Barta // Film Critic
With it being Black History Month, now is the time to look back and celebrate the influential films that honor the hardships, triumphs and history of the black experience in America.
From battling racism to exposing stereotypes, here are five features we believe helped capture generations and continue to define great cinema.
“Gone with the Wind” (1939)
A sprawling epic whose four-hour run can test the impatient, “Gone with the Wind” was a monumental achievement in American cinema. Based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel, this Academy Award-winning 1939 classic is a significant account of the South, before and after the Civil War.
Of course, who could forget Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara’s love story, respectively played by Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh? But more importantly, who could ignore the valiant acting efforts brought by history’s first Oscar-winning African-American, Hattie McDaniel, as O’Hara’s house servant named Mammy?
While the film received criticism later for depicting African-Americans as too “happy” in character, the movie is an unforgettable feature because it highlighted the racial discrimination that had yet to be worked out in America.
At the Atlanta premiere of “Gone with the Wind,” black actors were barred from going to the showing. The film’s producer, David O. Selznick, asked that an exception be made for McDaniel, but MGM advised against it due to Georgia’s remaining segregation laws. The attention of moviegoers and media brought light to the archaic prejudices that managed to survive and helped move toward abolishing them.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
Twenty-three years after “Gone with the Wind” and you arrive at the literary classic turned iconic film, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Gregory Peck lent his talents to the role of Atticus Finch, a 1930s Southern lawyer who defends a wrongly accused black man from his undeserved charge for the rape of a white woman.
Many have knocked the movie for its lack of depth amongst its black characters, but what gave “To Kill a Mockingbird” its lasting impression was evoking the long story of racial injustice and crippling discrimination that went on to plague the country while its audience was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Do the Right Thing” (1989)
For those who have had the pleasure of taking Professor Harry Benshoff’s Film and Television Analysis class, you may be familiar with Spike Lee’s masterpiece “Do the Right Thing.”
While Lee may be scrambling to get something substantial made nowadays amidst such cinematic misfires such as last year’s “Oldboy,” Lee skillfully led 1989 audiences into an African-American neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, dropping them into the simmering ethnic tensions between a group of African-Americans and the middle-aged, Italian-American patriarch of a local pizza joint.
Police brutality is but one of many complex issues raised in the film. Social mobility, community empowerment, gentrification, state authority and racism all appear in a film that is certainly one of the most controversial movies of all time.
Many have swirled a few debates around whether the primary character, Mookie, played by Lee, did the right thing or not at the film’s conclusion. Nevertheless, if audiences value life over property, they shouldn’t question Mookie’s decision.
“Malcolm X” (1992)
With his stirring and contentious 1992 biopic, “Malcolm X,” Lee once again showed how he was one of the most culturally significant filmmakers of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Lee and his titular star, Denzel Washington, shouldered a huge responsibility in chronicling the remarkable biography of slain civil-rights leader Malcolm X, along with the trials and triumphs he encountered during his lifetime.
According to many interviews and reports, Washington received several death threats if he didn’t do the part justice, while Lee was subject to scrutiny from nearly every member of the production team.
Luckily, audiences and critics agreed that Lee and Washington brought Malcolm X’s autobiography to life by depicting both the seedy and stoic sides of his character. The film was an impressive sweep with a nuanced message of hope to inspire and challenge filmgoers.
“12 Years a Slave” (2013)
While it may look a little bizarre that a film so fresh as this would be considered such an important movie in black history, “12 Years a Slave” more than earns its laurels. This brutally honest portrait of American slavery continues to garner awards and accolades for its unvarnished display of our past.
Based on the incredible and true account of one man’s fight for survival and freedom, the film follows Solomon Northup, magnificently played by Chiwetel Ejiofer (“Children of Men,” 2006), a free black man living in upstate New York, who is suddenly abducted and sold into slavery.
Movies about slavery are rare because white America, which has always overshadowed the motion picture industry, tries to repress this part of its past since racism continues to rust America’s soul. But what director Steve McQueen (“Shame,” 2011) paints on screen is truly a courageous feat that gives audiences an exhausting but horrifyingly effective picture of plantation life.
There are far too many films that should be listed among these aforementioned features, such as 1989’s inspirational tale of acceptance and camaraderie in “Glory,” but here are a smattering of other significant movies in black history: “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950), “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961), “The Great White Hope” (1970), “The Color Purple” (1985) and “Django Unchained” (2012).
Feature photo: Chiwetel Ejiofer leads a star-studded cast in “12 Years a Slave.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures