Imitation of Life (1959)
I thought I knew old movies, but when two African American friends of mine said this was their favorite movie, I’d never heard of it. Now I’m in their debt because I love this movie. It still amazes me that this movie was made in ’59. It tackles fundamental issues of race, yes, but is also one of the most layered and realistic portrayals of female friendship I’ve seen on film. Lana Turner and Juanita Moore (who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance) are terrific. This was Turner’s comeback, and was made the year of the notorious Hollywood case involving her daughter stabbing her boyfriend, so maybe that’s why she’s more interesting to me here than she is in other movies, but whatever the reason, it’s a great performance. Because of the two of them, the movie is emotional, moving, and inspirational. (Note, Turner Classic Movies is showing both the ’34 and ’59 versions on Monday, February 13. Claudette Colbert gets on my nerves so I can’t handle the ’34 version but I may give it a try this time.)
This is one of my favorite film dramas of all time. I saw it as a kid and it blew me away, and recently it made me cry again. Cicely Tyson’s Oscar nominated performance is beyond terrific. She lost the Oscar to Liza Minelli for Cabaret, but I’d have given it to her. (Sacrilege, but I would.)
No Way Out (1950)
A very dark noir, this is a Sidney Poitier, Richard Widmark thriller-drama that is pretty heavy, but fantastic suspense and plenty of grit. Maybe don’t watch it alone. It’s Poitier’s film debut, and man did he hit the ground running. (Note: there’s a horrible movie made in 1987 with Gene Hackman of the same title. Avoid.)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
OK, I have to say that in general, I passionately dislike Spike Lee’s movies because of his portrayal of women, which I find to be shallow, and really off-base to the point of being offensive. But this film is a masterpiece. I’d put it with Dog Day Afternoon and Annie Hall as a movie that takes a certain part of New York City’s reality and illuminates it to an almost magical level. Also, with all the characters it reminds me of a parable, or an opera, with every role representing something beyond itself, and all roles weaving together into a magnificent tapestry.
To Sir With Love (1967)
I’m sorry if you think this movie is corny, but I adore it. This is also one I saw first when I was young, a teenager, and I think seeing Poitier get those rude teenagers in line inspired me feel less intimidated by some of the “cool” kids at school. This is a movie that changed me. And plus, with the bouffanted Lulu singing the theme song, how can you not love this movie?
The Preacher’s Wife (1996)
I still find it sad to watch any Whitney Houston footage, but I hope that wears off by next Christmas, ‘cause I love this movie. I’m a gi-normous fan of the original (The Bishop’s Wife, 1947, with Loretta Young, Cary Grant and David Niven) so I went into the remake thinking: Make my day! And it did. As most ladies know, Denzel is truly an angel. This is a feel good flick.
Waiting to Exhale (1995)
Well, I’m not saying it’s a great movie. But if you’re a woman going through a breakup, you need this movie. End of review.
I wish I could put Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) on this list, ‘cause I love Tracey and Hepburn and Poitier, but the over-cheery actress playing the daughter drives me nuts, plus it strays into preach-y territory and at the same time sugar coats things a bit. I like it better when the drama itself does the work. I applaud its intentions, and I do like its play-like structure, and enjoyed it once, but I don’t usually watch this one any more. If you haven’t seen it, you should, but if want one about discrimination and love that holds up better with time, and is more true to the theme, go for A Patch of Blue (1965) in which Poitier falls in love with a blind woman. That one deals with race and class. Unusual film.
Show Boat (1936)
Personally, I don’t much like the 1951 version, as the casting, including Kathryn Grayson, is just far too frilly for this serious a show. The ’36 version has Paul Robeson’s performance of Ol Man River, Hattie McDaniel as Queenie, and a truer sense of the operatic character of the piece. Kern and Hammerstein chose this subject matter in 1927, seven years before Gershwin would tackle Porgy and Bess (over the objections of just about everybody.)
There is always fault to be found in retrospect with such ground-breaking pieces, and that’s especially evident in McDaniel’s role here, and with the casting of a white actress is cast in the role of Julie, who is “passing” for white, but Helen Morgan does a memorable job in the role she also did in the 1929 non-musical version, which was lost until recently. Now, with the perspective of Morgan’s own premature death due to alcoholism, her resonance with the role of Julie has an added poignancy. Even in the remake in the 1951 that role still went to a white woman, Ava Gardner.
That a white composer and librettist tackled this at that time with the degree of success they have here is still remarkable, and leaves much to admire and melodies to delight in, but with some of the clichéd over-smiling from McDaniels, along the sorrowful nature of much of the music, you’ll have many opportunities to lament for good and bad reasons. Sidenote: If you love the song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” make sure you track down the star-studded musical Till the Clouds Roll By (1946). Lena Horne’s version of the song is terrific in that.
In This Our Life (1942)
Maybe some would think it doesn’t belong on this list, but I’ll make my case. This is a drama starring Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland. Minor roles are played by Hattie McDaniel, of Show Boat and Gone With the Wind (1939) fame, and a young black actor named Ernest Anderson. In terms of the portrayal of African Americans in film, this film is very important for breaking ground on the more realistic characterizations, particularly in the case of Anderson’s young character.
The main story of course belongs to Davis and De Havilland, but their respective treatment of the young man Parry, played by Anderson, is used to reveal the nature of their characters in a significant way. (No spoilers here.) The screenplay is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, and the movie is rich in the way a novel is. Its the second directorial turn of John Huston, right after he directed the Maltese Falcon. The New York Times reviewed it in 1942 and found it “Neither a pleasant nor an edifying film” but all that reveals to me that it was ahead of its time. In fact, the original release trailer has the plot line of the young black man's character completely omitted, and upon its original release, scenes portraying the young African American man in a favorable light were edited out for southern audiences, and the U.S. Office of Wartime Censorship forbade its distribution overseas, in part because the film reveals the unfair treatment a young African American male within the justice system. Now the fact that it ruffled feathers speaks to its credit.
Often given only three stars, I think this movie is underrated, and deserves to make its way back onto lists of the best films dealing with African American themes. It certainly makes my list.
You do have to have a high tolerance for a bit of ham from Bette Davis, but I not only have that tolerance, I consider it a kind of delicacy. Charles Coburn is one of my favorite character actors, and here is a really good role for him. Lastly, it gives us a chance to see Hattie McDaniel in a truly dramatic part. Like her contemporary Louis Armstrong, Hattie McDaniel lived at a difficult time for a performing artist of color, and made the choice to take the professional opportunities available to her. She famously said that she was not ashamed to be making 700$ playing a maid as opposed to making 7$ being a maid. But the horrible constraints put on her in all of her roles are rightfully hard to watch for contemporary audiences. At the same time, part of appreciating any performance is seeing the way the performer transcends the limitations of the material, and she does.
While we’re on this subject, a more complicated issue is trying to sort out Gertrude Howard’s work in one of Mae West’s most famous movies, I’m No Angel (1933) also starring Cary Grant.
Many scenes here, like all the blackface numbers in musicals, make one cringe, even as the people performing them do their level best to infuse them with humanity. But I think there is more here than step and fetch if you look closely. Howard shows herself an equal to West even as she plays a kind of straight man, (woman) to West’s silliness. West, who wrote the screenplay herself, gives Howard and her co-maids more lines than strictly needed to further the scene and in this film’s most famous moment, when West says to Howard’s character “Peel me a grape” I have no doubt West is trying to play up the irony of having these servants wait on her.
Mae West insisted on having black maids in all her films, reportedly because she understood that some percentage of her audiences were black, though I think there may have been more to it. Here's why: The scenes with her servants linger in their playfulness to the point where West is engaging in girl talk with her servants in a very familiar way than in other films of the era. The movie is, after all, a comedy and you can almost see West wink at some of these moments, and I think she was deliberately mocking the servile role these actors were limited to playing. I say this from the perspective of a white person, so maybe this would be a horrible experience to watch this movie as a black person, but I think if you see it in the context of Mae West’s groundbreaking as producer, performer, writing her own screenplays, you’ll come to the conclusion I did, that she wasn’t celebrating the boundaries, she was tugging at them. And even more. I think if you look closely for a critique of the oppression of black performers, you will find it here. She's not making fun of them. As usual, she's making fun of herself.
To understand the more remarkable breakthroughs made by other actresses and actors listed above, a movie like this one bears watching. Young Cary Grant doesn’t hurt either. Above all, Gertrude Howard is worth knowing about. She performed in film beginning in 1925, played Aunt Chloe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927) and Queenie in the dramatic version of Show Boat (1929). Born in Arkansas in 1892, she died at the age of 41 just a year after I’m No Angel was made. I’ve been unable to find more information on her life and death, so if anyone has any info on that, please drop me a line.
So that's about it. Sorry if your favorite isn't here, and apologies to modern movie lovers. The absence of new movies and the low number of more recent movies on this list is a reflection not of their non-existence, but of my preference for movies made before the birth of rock and roll.
Lastly, because of the systemic discrimination of Hollywood, many early African American films and roles have been lost, but in this day and age, that’s no reason not to see them. Go to Youtube and look at early musical numbers with Dorothy Dandridge, and the Nicholas brothers just for starters. Speaking of Dandridge, if I had a time machine, I’d go back to 1936 and insist they give the role of Julie in Show Boat to her. She had made her film debut that year with the Dandridge Sisters in The Big Broadcast of 1936, and wouldn't she have been great in that role?
As promised, below are some links.
Happy Viewing. And Happy Black History Month.
In This Our Life Original Theatrical Trailer
Sounder Original Theatrical Trailer
Imitation of Life Original Theatrical Trailer
No Way Out Full Movie
I’m No Angel Full Movie