With Martin Luther King Day upon us its only timely to consider our country’s notoriously turbulent history on racial issues and the bitter divisions that remain today. It’s a difficult topic one that many movie directors prefer to side step altogether and even fewer can do it justice. Here are five examples of films that successfully tackled race head on.
Malcolm X (1992) Spike Lee produced, directed, and co-wrote the screenplay and Denzel Washington starred in the title role, in this epic biopic about the famous African American activist. The film follows Malcolm’s troubled childhood raised by his mentally ill mother after his father’s murder, his conversion to the Nation of Islam while in prison, and his career as an incendiary activist which ended in his assassination. He would however, become an inspiration to millions; including Nelson Mandela. Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to do With It?) plays Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz, Al Freeman Jr. (Finian’s Rainbow, Roots; The Next Generation) Malcolm’s tutor and teacher Elijah Muhammed, and Delroy Lindo (Get Shorty, The Cider House Rules) is a gangster known as West Indian Archie. Denzel was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award, and the movie’s garnered a fresh rating of over 90% at Rotten Tomatoes.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011) This award winning documentary directed by Goran Olsson chronicles the evolution of the Black Power movement through the late sixties to mid seventies as seen by Swedish Journalists and film-makers. Featuring found footage over thirty years old including appearances by Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, Lewis Farrakhan, Ingrid Dahlberg and more. Additional voiceovers and commentaries were provided by Erykah Badu and Amir Questlove who helped provide the musical score. Among the topics covered are the Black Panther Party, War on Drugs, and the anti-war movement.
Hidden Figures (2016) Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) directed and co-wrote the screenplay adapted by the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterley telling the too long unknown story of black, women, mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. Taraji Henson (Empire, Person of Interest, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is revelatory as the brilliant Katherine Goble Johnson. Octavia Spencer (The Help, Fruitvale Station) commands the screen as hyper competent Dorothy Vaughn and singer Janella Monae shines as sassy, ambitious Mary Jackson. They make a truly unforgettable trio on screen together and the cast is rounded out with memorable turns by Kirsten Dunst, Kevin Costner, and Mahershala Ali. The movie was a critical (over 90% fresh rating) and commercial success. Indeed it was the highest grossing Best Picture nominee that year.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016) Directed by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this Academy Award-nominated documentary is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. Baldwin died before he completing his memoir of his memories of such personal friends of his as Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr., but Jackson and Peck give him a voice beyond the grave to create a biography the Wall Street Journal called ‘enthralling…a evocation of a passionate soul in a tumultuous era.’
Moonlight (2016) Barry Jenkins wrote and directed this ground breaking picture based on Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. (Jenkins wisely abbreviated the title.) Presenting three stages, childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in the life of Chiron, the neglected son of drug addicted Paula, as he navigates his sexuality and identity. It’s pivotal theme is black male identity and how that intersects with sexual identity. The film was universally acclaimed with a 98% fresh rating, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, Best Adapted Screenplay for Jenkins and McCraney, and Best Picture. It was the first film with an all black cast AND first LGBT film to win Best Picture.
Top photo from Bigstock: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, as seen on April 16, 2016. This memorial is the first African American honored with a memorial on or near the National Mall.
Pink was the color of the day at the Women’s March on D.C. However, there was also purple, and rainbow, and red and white, and black and white. Organizers were expecting 250,000; it is estimated that a million people showed up for the march.
Women made up the majority of the audience, but there were a lot more men than expected. And tons of kids. There were people in wheelchairs, pregnant women, and people of all color and nationalities.
According to the organizers, the march “held on the first day of the new presidential administration, the Women’s March on Washington aims to send a message to all levels of government and the incoming administration: that we stand together in solidarity and expect elected leaders to act to protect the rights of women, their families and their communities.”
Ridership on Metro exceeded expectations with trains running frequently and with few glitches. Trains were crowded, but the majority of riders made it to the march on time and there was a feeling of euphoria and good will. Riders cheered as they got on the train and as they got off. People who heeded the advice to purchase their Metro cards ahead of time were rewarded as they missed the long lines to purchase cards.
The station manager at L’Enfant Plaza even got into the act as he directed riders with a megaphone to go to the left or the right – and even did a little dance.
Crowds poured out of the metro station onto the streets of D.C. While there were no signs or people directing traffic, people just went with the flow – and stopped when they could go no further.
By 10 a.m., the crowds were well past Sixth Street, NW and Independence Avenue. Jumbotrons were located at the corners at Fourth and Independence and at other locations. It was standing room only.
All kinds of signs dotted the landscape. Some were familiar, like ‘Feminists Fight Back,’ ‘I’m with her’ and ‘Protect our Future-Climate Change is real.’ Others were more off-color, such as, ‘My Pussy Isn’t Up for Grabs,’ ‘There You Have It Folks, an Actual Croc of Shit.’
And then some signs were just downright clever, like ‘You Can’t Comb Over Sexism.’ Children lent their own voices with signs saying, ‘You Break my Heart’ and ‘Though She May be Little, She is Fierce.’
People came from all over the world. Two women from Alabama were staying in Alexandria, and said that there was a school group staying in the same hotel who had been there for the inauguration, having booked it a year ago. “I think that if it wasn’t for the buses, there would have been even fewer people at the inauguration,” she said.
A group of grammar school friends from Connecticut came together to participate in the historic event. Berkeley students cheered when Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, mentioned the university in her comments. Most of the states designated meeting places for their constituents to come together at the beginning of the march. Others held receptions at the Capitol after the rally.
The crowd welcomed well-known speakers, such as Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, Ashley Judd, Scarlett Johansson, Melissa Harris-Perry, Michael Moore, Amanda Nguyen and Van Jones. Performers included Janelle Monae Maxwell, Angelique Kidjo, Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Indigo Girls, MC Lyte, Samantha Ronson, Toshi Reagon, Emily Wells, DJ Rekha, St. Beauty, Beverly Bond, Alia Sharif, DJ Remarkable, Amber Coffman, and Climbing PoeTree. Madonna and Ashley Keyes were last-minute performers. A group of largely female senators and other politicians took the stage. Among them were Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY; Senator Claire McCaskill, D-MO.; newly elected senators Kamala Harris, D-CA; Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.; and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-CA. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. was also there but did not speak.
In order to satisfy the many competing coalitions, the speaker list included over 40 speakers, causing the rally to go on way too long. Instead of the march starting at 1:15 p.m., as originally planned, the rally continued until past 2:30 p.m. Crowds were packed… so tightly that one woman had a panic attack and had to hold onto a wall at the American Air and Space Museum. A pregnant woman tried to move through the crowd to get to the bathroom. While there were tons of porta potties along the mall and on Independence Street, most of the crowd couldn’t get to them. The American Air and Space Museum had plenty of bathrooms, but they required visitors to go through security, which made the wait at least an hour long.
Nancy Iovino, Gale Curcio, Carol Martens Price, Jody Zeman, Susan Richards and Lindsay Richards
The March was originally planned to proceed west on Independence Avenue SW from Third Street SW, to Fourteenth Street SW, then turn north on Fourteenth Street SW to Constitution Avenue NW, continue west on Constitution Avenue NW to Seventeenth Street NW, and conclude near the Ellipse and Washington Monument. There were so many people, however, that actually marching proved to be impossible. Finally, around 2:30, one of the organizers said, “Go North!” And with that, the crowd started moving towards the mall towards the Washington Monument. The mall, which had been reserved for other protests, was half empty, making it easy for marchers to proceed.
Barricades along the mall, supposedly left over from the inauguration, occasionally tripped people up, but spirits remained high with chants of “Hell No, We Won’t Go” and “Say it loud, say it clear, migrants are welcome here.”
The group tried to get to the White House, but they were prevented to from getting near the premises. Metro continued to work well, getting people home until late in the evening. Some vandalism was reported, but it appears that they were caused by protests that were occurring concurrently with the women’s march.
Photos by Gale Curcio