Look around, and you’ll see how African Americans have emerged as the big screen’s most reliable stars. Will Smith is the one demonstrable megastar. Morgan Freeman’s quiet dignity gets him designated as the face of God and the soul of humanity. And the achievements of blacks are regularly honored by Hollywood. In the past seven years, blacks have won Academy Awards in every acting category. Halle Berry took Best Actress for Monster’s Ball, Freeman Best Supporting Actor for Million Dollar Baby, Jennifer Hudson Best Supporting Actress for Dreamgirls. In Best Actor, three of the last six Oscars have gone to African Americans: Denzel Washington for Training Day, Jamie Foxx for Ray and Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland. In these glamorous categories, blacks have achieved a kind of parity. Hmmm, that didn’t take long — only 100 years.
To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve chosen 25 movies to honor the artistry, appeal and determination of African Americans on and behind the screen. The films span nine decades, and reveal a legacy that was tragic before it was triumphant. At first, blacks were invisible; when they were allowed to be seen, it was mostly as derisive comic relief. The 1950s ushered in the age of the noble Negro, in the imposing person of Sidney Poitier — the Jackie Robinson of movies. Only when Hollywood realized that a sizable black audience would pay to see films more reflective of their lives, whether funny, poignant or violent, were they given control of the means of production. Sometimes. The fact remains that of the 25 films here, chosen to cover the widest range of black films, fewer than half were directed by blacks.
We need to examine the history of blacks in film to appreciate their deep roots. Poitier, Smith and Denzel Washington, all radiating a manly cine-magnetism, are the sons of Paul Robeson, who was the first great black movie star — or would have been, if Hollywood and America hadn’t been steeped in racism. Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, the top comedy stars of the 80s, have a strange, subversive ancestor in Stepin Fetchit, America’s first black millionaire actor. Prime African-American actresses of the 20s and 30s like Nina Mae McKinney, Fredi Washington and Hattie McDaniel waged valiant battles in a hostile industry, first to get movie roles, then to bring fiery life to them. Spike Lee’s stated aim as a director is to “uplift the race” — a motto used 60 years earlier by Oscar Micheaux, whose will to make socially pertinent movies for black audiences was as steely as the ambitions of his leading characters.
As Harriet Tubman led to Oprah Winfrey, and Martin Luther King. Jr., to Barack Obama, so the stars of early black cinema are the mothers and fathers of the stars who entertain and edify us. To study the work of Robeson, McKinney, McDaniel and their kin is to recognize the hardships they endured, the heroism they displayed, in making their impossible dream today’s movie reality.
Next Body and Soul