Tomorrow (Thanksgiving) check out NPR's News & Notes, hosted by Farai Chideya. I taped an interview for them two days ago during which I was asked to provide commentary on movies that families could watch over the holidays. When approached, I was given a list of Black American cinema classics (Cabin in the Sky, Imitation of Life, etc.) to choose from. I kept a few of those titles but tweaked the concept of "classic" a bit in order encompass films across genre, decades and generations. Check your local listings for the broadcast times. Meanwhile, here are the films with brief write-ups that explain my choices:
Imitation of Life (1959) – The great Douglas Sirk melodrama, adapted from the Fannie Hurst novel of the same name, which was first made into a film in 1934. In this version, fair-skinned African American Sarah Jane (played by Susan Kohner, who was not African American) tries to pass for white, with disastrous and sometimes violent results. Her mother is cocoa-skinned, saintly, long-suffering Annie (played by Juanita Moore), who works as a maid for Lana Turner’s character, Lora. Annie makes the ultimate sacrifice by agreeing to stay out of Sarah Jane’s life so as to not blow her daughter’s racial cover but in doing so, Annie’s heart is so broken that she falls ill. The film has a lush score, lavish gowns and unbridled emotionalism – the most famous example being the scene in which Mahalia Jackson sings the gospel standard, “Trouble of the World.” I chose this film because it’s a classic weepie, an almost guaranteed tearjerker. The film’s commentary on race is still very potent – as film historian Donald Bogle points out, Sarah Jane doesn’t want to be white so much as she wants “white opportunities” and that’s a crucial distinction to make so that she’s not simply cast as a villain – but the film’s emotional power lies in the way it shrewdly pushes buttons of guilt and grief around maternal love and sacrifice, and the way children can be oblivious to those sacrifices until it’s too late. This is fantastic film to stoke catharsis, to provide a letting of tensions that can spring up around holiday stress. Annie is really the idealized, fetishized black mother and the film masterfully manipulates that archetype to tap into something of longing, connection and reconciliation in that powerful bond between mother and child that transcends even death.
Claudine (1974) – Claudine is a fiercely devoted, hardworking mother of a different stripe, of a different era. In this 1974 film, Claudine, played by Diahann Carroll, is a single mom to six children, working secretly as a maid so as to not jeopardize the welfare she receives. When she falls in love with a garbage man (played by James Earl Jones), it not only complicates her own emotional life but reshapes the dynamic of her household, as well as putting her government assistance at risk. The film insightfully captures all those layers. I chose it because it’s smart, well-written, well-acted and shows the resilience of the black family even as terms of family are being redefined. And it takes two figures who continue to be much maligned and misunderstood – the single black mother and the black male – and gives you a nuanced, layered look at the fullness of them, their struggles, victories, defeats – their full humanity. Diahann Carroll was playing against type in this film and there was real doubt that she could play this poor, put-upon single mom. But the very qualities that people thought would work against her in the role – her regal bearing, the elegant aloofness – really made the performance because you got to see this character in a way she hadn’t been presented before and, unfortunately, is rarely shown in mainstream media today: she has great pride and dignity, she has class. She works hard. Although Claudine is tough and hardened, she’s not simply hard. She’s not anybody’s gangsta bitch and she’s not trying to be. She’s still incredibly feminine and loving, and she finds her strength and toughness in those qualities. It has to be noted that the Curtis Mayfield soundtrack is a fully realized character itself. It’s one of his most perfect creations, which is saying a lot. The songs he wrote and that Gladys Knight performs so beautifully (“The Makings of You,” “To Be Invisible,” “Mr. Welfare,”) all comment on the story, illuminate the characters, and lift the film into the realm of emotional truth. You just feel good after watching it.
Breakin’ (1984) – Breakin’ is an interesting film because it was one of Hollywood’s first attempts to cash in on hip-hop, which was then still thought to be a passing fad in many quarters. The script is formulaic and full of cliché’s, and the acting is incredibly uneven (putting it mildly.) But couched inside the flaws are some radical elements. The basic story is one that Hollywood has trotted out in some form over and over: a privileged white girl studying formal dance runs across a dance crew comprised of black and brown boys from the ‘hood and she’s so taken with their moves – and maybe with one of them – that her own art is transformed and revitalized. (Flashdance employed a bit of that formula; the wretched Save the Last Dance used it wholesale.) But what makes Breakin’ both important and enjoyable is the way it inadvertently moves beyond cliché: It’s a valentine to the West Coast and its contributions to hip-hop, specifically popping and locking; you see a brotherhood amongst black & brown folk that then circles out to encompass others; when you listen closely to the soundtrack and pay attention to what the characters are dancing to, you’re reminded that hip-hop has roots in soulful r&b, German electronic music, funk and disco; the dance sequences are still some of the most spectacular and influential of any Hollywood musical; the camaraderie between the men is playful and brotherly without the exaggerated, tired machismo that is so often deployed to squelch any whisper of queerness; in fact, one of the main characters is a flaming, combustible queen but the film doesn’t identify him as that and none of the other characters trip on his lack of hardness or street posturing because at this point a one-note, static, overly macho ‘hood pose wasn’t yet the badge of hip-hop authenticity that it would later become. Mainly, the film is unabashedly charming.
Antwone Fisher (2002) – Just as Breakin’ transcended the clichés of its script, Antwone Fisher moves beyond its overly familiar template – troubled youth goes under a doctor’s care and as he heals, provides a window for the physician to heal himself. This is a big-budget Hollywood holiday film, and those films tend to center on family, domestic strife and resolution that affirms family and ends on a note of uplift. Fisher does all of that as it tracks the course of its violent, rage-filled, self-destructive title character, who reluctantly goes into counseling with a therapist played by Denzel Washington, who also directed the film. When this movie was first released (Christmas season of 2002), a lot of mainstream critics dismissed it as old-hat, said that it was saying nothing new. They didn’t see beyond the script’s blueprint. How many big budget, mainstream Hollywood films tweak template in order to show how depression and despair are at the root of so much of the violent behavior exhibited by a certain subset of black youth, specifically black males? How many Hollywood films address the sexual and emotional abuse experienced by so many black boys? How many make note of the sadness that is often beneath the commodified and fetishized swagger? The film Antwone Fisher does. But what’s most moving and important about it is that it moves toward a final note of redemption, saying that even those who are deeply damaged, those who are spiritually wounded, can be saved and embraced as family. That they are family.
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