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.
Ah, Father’s Day when we celebrate dear old dad. This year instead of giving him an lousy tie, consider a family bonding experience like going out to the movies. Or staying in with one of the following movies about the paternal bond.
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) Robert Benton adapted and directed this tearjerker from the novel by Avery Corman. Workaholic ad-man Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is shocked when his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) leaves him to raise their son Billy alone. It’s tough going for a while, but over time Ted and Billy develop a closer bond – at which point Joanna comes back wanting custody. It received five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.
Father of the Bride (1991) A remake of the 1950 comedy of the same name. George Banks (Steve Martin) is a successful businessman, happily married to Nina (Diane Keaton) and with an extremely close relationship to his eldest child and only daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams in her film debut). When Annie announces her whirlwind romance and engagement to rich young Brian McKenzie (George Newbern) dad finds he’s not ready to give his little girl away. There’s an hysterical performance by Martin Short as the wedding planner the family hires. The film was both financially successfully earning back four times its budget and positively reviewed by critics as well.
In the Name of the Father (1993) Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America) directed and co-wrote this courtroom drama based on the true story of the Guildford Four. Young hoodlum Gerry Conlon (the only and only Daniel Day-Lewis) is arrested on false suspicion of terrorism and tortured to confess along with three of his compatriots. When Gerry’s father Giusseppe (the late great Peter Postlethwaite) goes to England to help his son, he’s arrested as well as a co-conspirator. After a ridiculous sham trial everyone is sent to prison with Gerry and Guisseppe being assigned to the same facility and indeed being cellmates. The movie gets a lot of great drama from the courtroom antics with Emma Thompson playing Gerry’s lawyer, but the heart of the film is the bonding that takes place between father and son behind bars. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress for Thompson, Best Supporting Actor for Postlethwaite, and yet another Best Actor nomination for Day-Lewis.
He Got Game (1998) This sports drama was written and directed by Spike Lee starring Denzel Washington, in the third of the four movie collaborations the two have done together. Denzel plays Jake Shuttlesworth a convicted murderer whose son Jesus (real life NBA star Ray Allen) is the number one high school basketball player in the country with colleges fighting over him. Jake is given an one week furlough by the governor with the condition; if he gets Jesus to play for the governor’s alma mater, he’ll be released early from prison. Milla Jovovich , John Turturro, and Rosario Dawson round out the cast. It has an 80% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for three NAACP film awards.
Finding Nemo (2003) Overprotective clown fish Marlin (Albert Brooks in one of his best roles,) goes across the ocean to rescue his lost son Nemo, and along the way has a series of adventures while meeting a fabulous cast of characters including Dory (Ellen Degeneres) a blue tang who suffers from short term memory loss, surfer dude tortoise Crush (Andrew Stanton) and Bruce (Barry Humphries) a white shark trying to go vegetarian with mixed results. It was the highest grossing animated movie of all time AND helped establish Pixar’s reputation not only for CGI wizardry but also heartfelt storytelling. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture and was nominated for three other awards including Best Original Screenplay.
There will always be debate when a play or musical is adapted for film. What seemed like a powerhouse story on a small stage may lose steam on the big screen. Despite its star power and award nominations, 2014’s August Osage County, with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, took in less than $40 million at the domestic box office. This season’s play-to-film offering, Fences, is positioned to do better, having raked in more than $32 million after opening in wide release on Christmas Day.
There’s been much anticipation over this film, adapted from August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Wilson, who died in 2005, thwarted previous efforts, holding out for an African-American director. Enter Denzel Washington, who had starred in a 2010 Broadway revival, which, like the film was also produced by Scott Rudin. (Rudin is one of a handful of people who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Tony, and Oscar.) With Washington as director and star, filming began in April in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the working-class neighborhood where Wilson grew up.
Stephen McKinley Henderson, Denzel Washington, and Jovan Adepo
Denzel’s Troy Maxson and his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), are sanitation workers, hanging off the back of the truck, wondering why only white men are used as drivers. Troy has registered a complaint with his superiors, a move that could get him fired. Instead, management honors his request and makes him a driver, although that move will lead to a separation from Bono, one of the few people who manages to keep Troy grounded.
Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson
On the surface, Troy seems content. He has a job, a home, and a wife, Rose (Viola Davis), he says he loves. But as he sits in the back yard drinking, first with Bono and later with his older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his story turns out to be much darker. As an adolescent, he killed a man in a robbery and spent time in prison. (That was where he met Bono.) After being released, he played in the Negro Baseball League and still hoped for a career in the majors. He continues to blame racism rather than his age for never advancing in the sport. And when his younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is being scouted by college football teams, he refuses to meet with the recruiter or sign the necessary papers. While he justifies his stand by telling Cory that football, too, is racist, he seethes with jealousy that his son might succeed where he failed. Relations with his older son are no better. An aspiring musician, Lyons often turns up on Friday, payday, to borrow money from Troy, but what he really wants is his father’s attention. Instead, Troy refuses to go to the club to see Lyons play and continually disparages his career choice.
Troy frequently shouts that he’s the boss and the house Rose and Corey live in is his, something that’s not quite true. Troy’s brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), has a medal plate in his head, the result of a war injury. Gabe received $3,000 from the government for his mental impairment, which Troy used to buy the home. Although Gabe moved out, he lives nearby but spends most of his time wandering around the neighborhood, a tarnished trumpet tied around his neck.
While Troy thinks of himself as the head of the family, the one holding everything together is Rose. She puts up with his drinking and his ill-conceived plan to build a fence around the house. In Troy’s mind, the fence is more than just a way to enclose his property. Mentally, he’s hounded by the Grim Reaper and believes that the wooden barrier will keep evil at bay.
Washington opens up the film somewhat, with a few scenes shot in the street and in a bar. But for the most part, the action happens in Troy’s house and the backyard. Within that small space, the drama feels even more intense, brought home with close ups showing the emotions on the faces of the actors. While this is the story of an African-American working family, the themes resonate across socio-economic lines. Dreams die hard and often there is collateral damage.
Viola Davis and Jovan Adepo
Washington, in virtually every scene, has never been better. This is a dialogue heavy film and Washington alternates between delivering some lines like poetry, others like a diatribe. His Troy is not a sympathetic character, yet, at times, we feel sympathy for him, the result of Washington’s visceral performance. Troy is his own worst enemy, and as he builds his fence, this world closes in on him.
The real star of the film, however, is Davis. This actress seems to be at the top of her game no matter what she does. She continues to wow critics and fans with her role as Professor Annalise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. No doubt, her star power will be one reason Fences does well at the box office. Her Rose is one for the ages, a performance that will be called out again and again. Watching Davis’ face as she registers the magnitude of Troy’s betrayal is painful to watch. She makes a difficult choice, one that has less to do with forgiving Troy and more to do with stopping others from suffering. It’s an heroic gesture, one that too few would have the courage to make.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures.