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February 7, 2014

America’s Favorite Oscar Worthy Black Films

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By all accounts, 2013 was a striking year for black film directors. There were eleven films with black filmmakers this year: “12 Years a Slave” (Steve McQueen); “Black Nativity” (Kasi Lemmons); “Baggage Claim” (David E. Talbert); “The Best Man Holiday” (Malcolm D. Lee); “Big Words” (Neil Drumming); “Fruitvale Station” (Ryan Coogler); “The Butler” (Lee Daniels); “Mother of George” (Andrew Dosunmu); “Oldboy” (Spike Lee); “A Madea Christmas” (Tyler Perry) and “Tyler Perry Presents Peeples” (Tina Gordon). The films include historical dramas, romantic comedies, a biopic, a Korean thriller remake, and holiday-themed movies

Out of the 11 films mentioned here “12 Years a Slave” Solomon Northup’s 19th-century narrative about being taken from freedom into slavery, walked away with nine Oscar nominations. Including picks for best picture, best director (Steve McQueen), best actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and best supporting actress (Lupita Nyong’o).

N’Digo takes a look of some great black movies that were worthy of winning Oscars.

Malcolm X – Great epic story of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X.

The late Film Critic Roger Ebert said “Malcolm X” is one of the great screen biographies, celebrating the whole sweep of an American life that began in sorrow and bottomed out on the streets and in prison before its hero reinvented himself.

Spike Lee tells it in an extraordinary film. The film is inspirational and educational – and it is also entertaining, as movies must be before they can be anything else. Denzel Washington stands at the center of the film, in a performance of enormous breadth. He never seems to be trying for an effect and yet he is always convincing.  Washington is a congenial, attractive actor, and so it is especially effective to see how he shows the anger in Malcolm, the unbending dogmatic side. Spike Lee is not only one of the best filmmakers in America, but one of the most crucially important, because his films address the central subject of race. He doesn’t use sentimentality or political cliches, but shows how his characters live, and why. Denzel clearly earned his Oscar nomination.

Do The Right Thing – Controversial film about race relations

Film Critic Roger Ebert started his 2001 review by saying  “I have been given only a few film going experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw “Do the Right Thing.” Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul. In May of 1989 I walked out of the screening at the Cannes Film Festival with tears in my eyes.   Spike Lee had done an almost impossible thing. He’d made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants. He didn’t draw lines or take sides but simply looked with sadness at one racial flashpoint that stood for many others. Seeing the film again today, I was reminded of what a stylistic achievement it is. Spike Lee was 32 when he made it, assured, confident, in the full joy of his power. He takes this story, which sounds like grim social realism, and tells it with music, humor, color and exuberant invention.

Love Jones – Great love story about two intelligent artistic African American 20-somethings.

“Love Jones” is a love story set in the world of Chicago’s middle-class black artists and professionals–which is to say, it shows a world more unfamiliar to moviegoers than the far side of the moon. It is also frankly romantic and erotic and smart. Nia Long and Larenz Tate were destined for these and more starring roles. They embody movie star qualities. They’re fresh, humorous, and undeniably good-looking. It’s hard to believe that Tate–so smooth, literate and attractive here–played the savage killer O-Dog in “Menace II Society” and Nia was one of the girl friends in “Boyz N the Hood”. Love Jones extended their range to put it mildly. The film was unconventional in its ending. Many love stories contrive to get their characters together at the end. This one contrives, not to keep them apart, but to bring them to a bittersweet awareness that is above simple love.

Five Heartbeats – This epic movie told the story of the evolution of a Temptations-like R&B group in the 60s and 70s and had great music, great writing and great acting.

“The Five Heartbeats” takes the notion of a musical biopic one step further than usual. His movie is not only the rags-to-riches story of a group of guys from the neighborhood who become big stars, but also the story of what happens to them next.

Their ultimate destination is not simply stardom, which is fairly easy for them to attain, but maturity and happiness, which are a lot harder. This was Robert Townsend’s first traditional feature film; his directorial debut, some four years ago, was “Hollywood Shuffle” a series of comic sketches that parodied the cliched ways Hollywood has used black characters in the movies. Most of those sketches were under 10 minutes; this time, at feature length, Townsend shows a real talent, and, not surprisingly, an ability to avoid most cliches, to go for the human truth in his characters.

New Jack City – Great crime drama about the birth of crack and the violent gangs it spawned.

The story involves the career of Nino (Wesley Snipes) a smart man with a certain genius for organization, as he ruthlessly takes over a Harlem apartment building and makes it the distribution headquarters for his cocaine business. Snipes, effortlessly portrayed a threatening charisma of a great screen villain. There is scene when Nino relaxes in his suburban mansion. While in his own screening room viewing “Scarface” the Al Pacino movie about a drug lord, Nino brags to his girlfriend that he will never make the mistakes the guy made in the movie—but as he stands in front of the screen, the image of Scarface’s dead body is projected across his own.

In another movie, this moment might look like simple cinematic tricksmanship. Here it has a special impact, because this ambitious film aims to be a similar record of the rise and fall of a big drug business. The movie was advertised (no doubt wisely) as a slam-bang action adventure, but in fact it’s a serious, smart film with an impact that lingers after the lights go up.  The performances by Ice-T and Chris Rock are effortlessly authentic and convincing. The screenplay by Thomas Lee Wright and Barry Michael Cooper was great. It wasn’t played safe or meant to be a retread other movies about cops and drugs. Mario Van Peebles took chances and gave his film an authentic and gritty feel: He shot on location and used a lot of street slang. He allowed his cast to sound like their street characters and not like guys from a TV cop show. This is the movie where he comes of age as a director. Chris Rock and Wesley Snipes performances were Oscar worthy.

Jungle Fever – Excellent movie about the stigmas around inter-racial dating, Black families and the crack epidemic.

“Jungle Fever” is Spike Lee’s term for unhealthy sexual attraction between the races – for relationships based on stereotypes. Too often when blacks and whites go to bed with one another, they are motivated, not by love or affection, but by media-based myths about the sexual allure of the other race.  Wesley Snipes portrays Flipper an African American who meets Angie, an Italian-American in the office he works at. Their eyes meet, and the fever starts. The best single scene in the movie comes as Drew (wife of the Flipper character) and her friends sit around talking about black men, in hard truths ranging from sorrow and anger to humor. “Jungle Fever” contains two powerful sequences – an improvised, girl talk scene filmed over a period of two days by Lee and the actresses, who were asked to contribute their own deepest feelings on the subject matter and a crack-house visit – of amazing power and realism. It contains humor and insight and canny psychology, strong performances, and the fearless discussion of things both races would rather not face. The movie showcased great performances by Wesley Snipes, Samuel Jackson and Lonette McKee.

American Gangster – Success story of a heroin dealer being pursued by a police detective.

Denzel Washington in another one of those performances where he is affable and smooth on the outside, yet ruthless enough to set an enemy on fire. Nothing more nothing less Washington electrified the screen in every scene.

The Color Purple – The Color Purple spans the years 1909 to 1949, relating the life of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), a Southern black woman virtually sold into a life of servitude to her brutal husband, sharecropper Albert (Danny Glover).

Whoopi Goldberg in one of the most amazing debut performances in a movie history was deemed to win the Academy Award in 1985 for best actress but didn’t.   The film garnered 11 nominations but failed to win any.

Goldberg fearsomely enlisted our sympathy for a woman who is rarely allowed to speak, to dream, to interact with the lives around her. Spielberg broke down the wall of silence around her giving her narrative monologues in which she talks about her life and reads the letters she composes. The performances in this movie were excellent.

The affirmation at the end of the film is so joyous that this is one of the few movies in a long time that inspires tears of happiness, and earns them. “The Color Purple” was the year’s best film.

This was Whoopi Goldberg’s first major performance, and remains her best, because she was allowed to draw from her inner truth and not required to play a sappy or comic role. “The Color Purple” was rightly criticized for Spielberg’s postcard landscapes, his broad characterizations and the convolutions of his plot. But what he made was a movie of great mass appeal with a powerful truth at its center.



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