In honor of Black History Month,
Time has compiled a list of 25 influential
about, and/or for African Americans since Paul Robeson made his
first silent films in the 1920s. I say “list,” but it’s really an
article; Time offers a thoughtful (and at times nicely sarcastic)
look at the films and actors in their historical and cinematic context.
As the article points out,
in a day when Morgan Freeman plays God and Will Smith
beats George Clooney as a box-office draw, times have improved.
Hollywood has come a long way since setting Lena Horne‘s performances
as vignettes that could be excised for screenings in all-white communities.
(No wonder she gave up on the business.)
So here are a few of the titles
(i.e., movies starring women) I found interesting. Some I’ve seen,
some I need to.
Imitation of Life (1934)
At the heart of this adaptation
of a Fannie Hurst novel is the conflict between Delilah (Louise Beavers),
a maid and single mother, and her light-skinned daughter Peola (Fredi
Washington). Finding she can pass for white, Peola decides
to leave her family to live as a white woman, telling her darker-skinned
mother, "Even if you pass me on the street, you’ll have to pass
me by." When Delilah dies, presumably of a broken heart,
Peola is overcome with guilt.
The moral dilemma of passing
to achieve social success but leaving behind one’s family is its own
subgenre in literature of that time, and the movie was one of the first
films to offer a (somewhat) sympathetic view of a protagonist stuck
between family and a whitewashed American dream.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
I was a little surprised to
see this one on the list, given the subject matter (former slave-owners
and the former slaves who love them). But it makes sense that
Hattie McDaniel made the list for her role as Mammy, “the movie’s
moral center and the stern arbiter of Scarlett’s strategies and whims.”
This sounds familiar.
Mammy might have been the prototype for the black BFF who finds her way into stories with
largely white casts. McDaniel played this role hundreds
of times, but she kept as much a sense of humor as she could, saying,
"Hell, I’d rather play a maid than be one."
Carmen Jones (1954)
The film version of Carmen
Jones, Oscar Hammerstein’s reimagining of Bizet’s opera with an
African American, brought commercial success for the film and stardom
to Dorothy Dandridge, who played the title role. She snagged
the Academy’s first nomination for a black performer in a leading role.
Sadly, Dandridge didn’t fare
much better than her on-screen alter-ego. She wasn’t murdered,
exactly, but after being pigeonholed into roles as the sexy temptress
in a few other films, her career dead-ended, and she overdosed at age
Lady Sings the Blues
This film appears to have made
the list because of its smashing commercial success. If you haven’t
seen it, you’ve missed out on some amazing stuff: Diana Ross
plays Billie Holiday, the wildly talented but ill-fated blues
singer. Ross won an Oscar nod for Best Actress.
Ross’ career itself, of course,
was fictionalized in another musical-turned-movie, Dreamgirls,
which catapulted Jennifer Hudson from reality show finalist to award
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Writer and director Kasi
Lemmons tells a tale of a 10-year-old-girl in a family situation
she is too young to understand or control, though that doesn’t stop
her from trying to do both. I’m still trying to convince myself
that Time wasn’t being condescending by saying, “This is a
woman’s film,” but I haven’t seen it yet, so I’m not sure what that
means. I’ll have to bump it up in my Netflix queue.
These are most of the films
starring women that were mentioned, and looking at them, I’m thinking
it’s a tiny list. So what films did Time leave off the