AAFCA Presents: The Black Experience on Film - Tues & Thurs in September
Since Hollywood's earliest beginnings, images of minorities on screen were often presented through a filtered lens of stereotypes and one-dimensional characters. This representation rarely showcased the nuanced differences in experience among racial groups in America, or the connective similarities. African-Americans in particular were largely seen as service workers and background characters with few lines and little complexity.
However, that's not the whole of Hollywood's history of depicting black characters and themes. During cinema's first century, films were made that highlighted the diversity of African-American lives. TCM has partnered with the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) to present a month-long study of these movies. On each night of our Spotlight, 13 different members of the collective will sit in pairs to discuss a variety of films and their attempts to portray the Black Experience.
AAFCA was founded in New York City in 2003 by its President Gil L. Robertson IV and fellow critic Shawn Edwards. Its mission is to create awareness of films with widespread appeal to the black community while stressing the importance of films produced, written, directed and featuring people of African descent. Association members represent multiple media outlets including print, TV, radio broadcast and online venues. Each year the organization presents awards for achievements in film in a variety of categories.
Chronologically, the films in this special spotlight range from Within Our Gates (1920), Oscar Micheaux's silent account of contemporary racial violence and the oldest known surviving film made by a black director; to Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991), a study of Gullah women on Saint Helena Island and the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to be distributed theatrically in the U.S. Both films are included in the category of Exploring Black Identity; below are the other categories in the festival, with representative titles.
Hollywood Confronts Racism includes A Raisin in the Sun (1961), the original film version of Lorraine Hansberry's play about a black Chicago family searching for a better life. Daniel Petrie directs a cast headed by Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Claudia McNeil. A Soldier's Story (1984), adapted by Oscar-nominated Charles Fuller from his play, was directed by Norman Jewison and tells the story of a murder of a black U.S. Army sergeant in Louisiana during World War II. Other Oscar nominations came for Best Picture and Supporting Actor (Adolph Caesar).
African-Americans Coming of Age features Bright Road (1953), which focuses on a troubled first-year elementary student in a rural school in Alabama. Directed by Gerald Mayer, the film features Dorothy Dandridge as the boy's teacher and, in his feature-film debut, Harry Belafonte as the school's principal. Sounder (1972) is the classic film about the struggles of a family of black sharecroppers during the Great Depression in Louisiana. Martin Ritt directed, and the movie won Oscar nominations in the categories of Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay (Lonne Elder III), Actor (Paul Winfield) and Actress (Cicely Tyson).
Black Romance in Film includes Anna Lucasta (1958), based on the play by Philip Yordan about a San Diego prostitute (Eartha Kitt) torn between a respectable young man (Henry Scott) and a streetwise sailor (Sammy Davis Jr., in his dramatic debut). A Warm December (1973) stars Poitier as a widowed American doctor who visits London and falls for an African princess (Jamaican actress Esther Anderson). Poitier also directed this charming romance.
African-American Musicals were a rarity in Hollywood when Vincente Minnelli directed Cabin in the Sky (1943), a movie version of the Broadway hit about a black gambler's efforts to get into heaven. The film stars Ethel Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Lena Horne. "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe," performed by Waters, was nominated for Best Original Song. Carmen Jones (1954), adapted from a stage musical written by Oscar Hammerstein II and based on the Georges Bizet opera Carmen, was directed by Otto Preminger and features Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in leading roles.
Strong Black Women includes Diahann Carroll in Claudine (1974), as a single mother in Harlem who falls in love with a garbage collector (James Earl Jones). John Berry directed the movie, which brought Carroll an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Sparkle (1976), shown in its TCM premiere, was inspired by the real-life group The Supremes and features Lonette McKee, Irene Cara and Dwan Smith as ambitious sisters who achieve stardom as a singing group based in Harlem. The film, directed by Sam O'Steen, attracted a cult following and was remade in 2012.
Among African-American Comedies is Watermelon Man (1970), which stars Godfrey Cambridge as a white insurance salesman who wakes up one day to find he has turned black. The movie was directed by Melvin Van Peebles and costars Estelle Parsons as Cambridge's wife. Another satire, Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle (1987), casts the writer-producer-director as a young actor who struggles to find non-stereotypical roles and fears that he's "not black enough" to succeed in the film world.
Black Stories from Around the World include Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), a British drama based on Alan Paton's novel about two South African ministers (Canada Lee and Sidney Poitier) who struggle to help individuals damaged by their country's policies of apartheid. Zoltan Korda produced and directed. Walkabout (1971) is a British-Australian drama based on the novel by James Vance Marshall and directed by Nicolas Roeg. The story concerns two white students (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg, the director's son) who find themselves adrift in the Australian outback and must rely on aid from an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) to survive.
Be sure to check the schedule for a full list of each night's films.
by Roger Fristoe