Time magazine’s “25 most important films on race”

on

In honor of Black History Month,

Time has compiled a list of 25 influential

movies
starring,

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

41.

Lady Sings the Blues

(1972)

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

winner.

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

list?

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