Black History month is the perfect opportunity to celebrate notable African-American actors, along with the themes that illuminate and illustrate the African-American experience over the years.
Black movies have always had a way of influencing and impacting their audiences, and an impressive number of them have highlighted issues that reflected the possibilities and plight of the black community. In so doing, they haven’t failed to entertain shock or move us in ways that seem familiar, but have instead, both temporarily and permanently, helped Blacks transcend the stereotypes, stigmas and status of being Black in America.
Black history month gives us the opportunity to re-visit the movies that have produced some of the finest Black actors of our time. Each movie provides us with an unforgettable experience and a tellingly poignant story that has helped to shape the black experience, both on and off screen.
First on my list is the 1925 black and white classic Body and Soul starring the handsome and charismatic Paul Robeson. This film takes us back to the silent movie era. Paul Robeson who was among other things, a Rutgers football star and a Columbia-educated lawyer, plays an escaped convict who passes himself off as a minister while wreaking havoc on the dwellers of a mostly African-American town. Following the film’s release, it played exclusively in theatres that catered to an African American audience. However, in 2000 it was showcased at the New York Film Festival where it finally garnered the noteworthiness that eluded it all these years. Robeson was also a civil rights activist and a Stalin Peace Prize Laureate.
The second film on my list is The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). Jackie Robinson plays himself in this story that hinges on the “defying-all-odds” theme. It’s an inspirational story for the younger generation to appreciate. Robinson became the hero of his time when he fought to become the first African-American Major League Baseball player. He overcame the odds and tore down the racial barriers that stifled many promising black athletes. He went on to have a thriving and rewarding career in baseball.
Another movie that echoes the racial tensions of the sixties is the 1967 film, In The Heat Of The Night. Sidney Poitier gives a stellar performance in this story that revolves around a high profile murder in a small Mississippi town. Poitier plays the role of the black detective from Philadelphia who butts heads with the town’s white Police Chief. This film was one of the first to feature a scene where a black man was able to stand up to the white man’s tirade. Sidney Poitier fought for his dignity as an actor and it is evident in the performance he gives.
Finally, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) is a screen gem about Brooklyn’s multi-ethnic and racially-charged Bed-Stuy neighborhood. This is an important film that should be required viewing for all Americans regardless of race or status. In 1999, the Library of Congress declared Do The Right Thing “culturally significant” and it is 96th on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American Movies in Film History.
Hopefully, these films will continue to move audiences, regardless of color, in a way that is both inspiring and rewarding.