As an educator, fighting ignorance is my job. As black man who is also an expatriate educator, fighting ignorance can be an all-consuming yoke around my neck. Even some of the most highly-educated people, with many years of traveling to the US reflected in their passports, have no clue about the black experience in the United States beyond slavery, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and now Barack Obama. Luckily, I have an increasingly comprehensive body of films at my disposal that allows me to debunk myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions about my people that, with the likes of Flava Flav, persist abroad.

Through movies produced, directed by, and principally starring black Americans, I can touch on issues to which many outside of the black American community are exposed, and which connect blacks in the United States with communities throughout the Diaspora. Here are seven must-show films, listed alphabetically and replete with quotable quotes, for expats and educators seeking to provide more-than-superficial insight into American blackness (Unitedstatesian, for my Latin American brethren/sistren):

Drumline (2002) – This comedy, with Mariah’s cougar bait, Nick Cannon, updates Spike Lee’s School Daze, featuring a smart-alecky newbie on the campus of a historically black college in Atlanta. We get
daddy issues, dating issues, roommate issues, bully issues, and a peek into the inner workings of a black college marching band. Ending’s meh, but the actual drumline competition always takes me back to my own days on The Set.
Quote: “Oh look, my baby done got another ‘A’. Yes she did.” Well, I thought it was funny.

Eve’s Bayou (1997) – A moody work of art that takes place among the Spanish moss and languid mangrove swamps of 1960s Louisiana, Eve’s Bayou stars Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield as an unfaithful country doctor and his beautiful, desperate housewife. Told from the perspective of their precocious daughter, Eve, the film delves deftly into infidelity, upper-middle-class malaise, and even voodoo, while showing us a multi-ethnic, multi-hued black society free of the impositions or validations of whites. One of my favorite movies of all time.
Quote: “Go ahead and let the little hooligans get run over. It’ll be much quieter around here!” Tell ’em, Grandmère.

Glory (1989) – A heroic drama starring Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, and Denzel Washington, Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first all-black military regiment in US history, that fought for the North and the emancipation of slavery during the Civil War. The film establishes the connection amongst blacks who may not get along individually, but who unite behind the cause of freedom for their countrymen, as well as the idea of blacks fighting for a country they hope to claim as their own.
Quote: “Ten dollas lotta money.” Hell, still is.

The Great Debaters (2007) – Starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, and Kimberly Elise as the molders and shapers of young minds at Wiley College in 1930s Texas, The Great Debaters fibs a bit (the real debaters went up against USC, not Harvard), but serves up major lecture talking points: historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), lynchings and terrorist acts against blacks in the rural South, segregation and skin-tone, and workers rights.
Quote: “We do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do.” Preach!

Harlem Nights (1989) – This bawdy comedy, with a cast of comedic greats—Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Della Reese, even Eddie and his underused brother Charlie Murphy—gives us gangsters and glamour in 1930s New York and is strictly for the adult audience. Aside from profane jousting between Foxx and Reese, Harlem Nights shows that titular neighborhood could do Prohibition as good as, if not better, than any spot downtown, and nods to the tremendous increase in black wealth (albeit illegal) that accompanied the Harlem Renaissance. And you know, sometimes cursing is just damn funny.
Quote: “Kiss my en-tire ass.” Nuff said.

Malcolm X (1992) – Besides adding fantastic words and phrases to my generation’s lexicon such as “hoodwinked,” “bamboozled,” “led astray,” and “run amok,” Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, starring a magnetic Denzel (again) and the severely underemployed Angela Bassett, offers the flip side of we shall overcome: by any means necessary. A serious portrait of a serious thinker, Malcolm X is a bit long, but hardly dull.
Quote: “What do you call a black man with a PhD? A nigger!”

Passing Strange: The Movie (2009) – The semi-autobiographical, gospel/pop/rock-infused story of a black, middle-class, angst-ridden teenager who jets off to Europe in search of “The (ever elusive) Real” in the early 80s, Passing Strange is a stage musical taped by Spike Lee on the last night of its two-year Broadway run back in 2008. Starring a cast of young, energetic stage actors and headed by writer and musician, Stew, the musical takes on racial and cultural identity, artistic struggle, familial relationships, and existentialism with foot-tapping intensity.
Quote: “Culture is cosmetic.” Damn.

Also in the repertoire: The Josephine Baker Story, I Like It Like That, Boomerang, Precious, Amistad, The Color Purple (duh!), Devil in a Blue Dress, Jungle Fever. Any others I should add?

10 COMMENTS

  1. Wow. This is… commendable. I don’t even try to unpack the black experience in my classes. Perhaps its because I’m in Europe, where people are the most ignorant, and willfully so, about race. Even thinking about presenting such material in class with the intention of fighting 6 centuries of ignorance makes me want to curl up in a fetal position, suck my thumb and rock back and forth in a corner. Having said that, how do you use these films exactly? As introductions to grammar or vocabulary presentations? Listening exercises? Or just in the service of cultural understanding?

  2. @ieishah: LOL at your elipses. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to teach an entire film class like I’d like, but I’ve shown a couple of the films in university language and culture classes when I’m discussing accents/dialects, a specific time period (e.g. the Civil War), or a specific social issue (segregation, the one-drop rule, etc.). Sometimes, I just get tired of talking, so I show a film. Of course, I can’t cover every issue in that six-century history, but at least we have some tools to chip away at the ignorance. In Latin America, many people still believe Beyonce’s not black (not that she helps with that opinion), so some of these movies are good for driving home an understanding of American blackness as not/never having been attached to skin color. Stay strong, Ieishah, heh heh. No need for the fetal position.

    @Gem: Crooklyn‘s definitely a great flick, but when you start loading things with too many Spike movies (Bamboozled, for instance), people think you have an agenda. 😉

  3. This looks like a good list. I haven’t even seen all of these. Sometimes I feel like it’s just so difficult to get a good representation of AF-Am culture through film. Look at some of the coverage of Precious, people assuming Gabby Sidibe was Precious or that her life was similar to hers, etc. I guess it’s better when a film focuses on a specific event, story, family but even then many people will see that as representative of a large group or the entire race.
    Anyway I was going to mention The Fighting Temptations. It’s not a great movie but I enjoyed watching it. It has some references to the differences between rural/southern and urban/northern life, the role of church plays in some communities, gospel and hiphop music( A few times I’ve been asked if I sing or I’m in a choir while abroad, based on appearance I guess). lol It even has Beyonce.

    • Thanks for stopping through. It’s always difficult to represent us, no matter the format; it’s just good to have some images to go with the rhetoric. I haven’t seen The Fighting Temptations, but I’m sure there are some funny parts. I typically try to stay away from comedies (Harlem Nights the notable exception), because at least here in Latin America, those are the only black movies that make it to theaters. Imagine me having to undo the damage wrought by Norbit and Big Mama’s House 2, both of which came out in Colombia while I was living there. Oh, and they also got Diary of a Mad Black Woman. 🙁 You know I had my work cut out for me.

  4. Hey FlyBro – Love your blog(s), which I’ve been following for years now. Glad I have occasion to contribute my 2c. As far as movies with positive representations of black folk, I’m definitely a fan of “Love Jones” and “Brown Sugar”, both of which showcase smart young black urban professionals. I also like “Stomp the Yard” and “School Daze” for their representations of black (U.S.) folks on college campuses (and lawd ha’ mercy, the bodieeees in “Stomp” are too much!!). And there’s a fantastic movie that came out last year, “Medicine for Melancholy,” which has a kind of “afro-indy” flava. And finally, “Brotha to Brotha” and Kirk Shannon-Butts’ “Blueprint” are also great black gay stories – we need more of those on film. Hope these are useful! Keep up the great work!

  5. Great post! Eve’s Bayou is one of those movies I’ve always meant to see but never actually seen – I should go check if I can get it through Netflix. Huge co-sign on ‘Passing Strange’! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched it.

    As for suggestions, I recently watched an indie movie called “Something is Killing Tate”. It’s about a man who has tried to committ suicide, and as the people in his life visit, trying to lift him out of his depression, there are flashbacks that slowly reveal exactly what has driven him so close to the edge. Much like “Precious”, it tells a difficult, emotionally harrowing story that a lot of people would rather not be shown. But it was an excellent, well acted movie and definitely worth seeing.

    Also, check out Steven Barnes and his blog, Dar Kush (http://darkush.blogspot.com/). He is a writer who has worked extensively in Hollywood. He and his his wife, Tananrive Due, with Blair Underwood, have written a series of detective novels which are being made into a movie. If you go through his archives he may have some more movie suggestions, or email him directly – he’s extremely approachable, and the portrayal of African Americans in the movies is a topic he’s blogged quite a bit about. He talks a lot about African American sexuality in movies, and how you very rarely see black people in healthy, whole, relationships onscreen. This post in particular, about “Hancock” has stuck with me: http://darkush.blogspot.com/2008/07/hancock-2008.html

  6. @Cedric: Thanks a lot for being a long-time reader, man. I definitely appreciate the folk that have traveled with me from the States to Colombia, around the world, and now to Brazil…you can call me out when you think I’ve sold out, lol! I forgot to list “Love Jones” at the bottom; I’ve definitely used that in classes before. I also used to use “School Daze,” but I replaced it with “Drumline” because as much as I love it, it’s a bit dated (and musicals don’t play all that well in Latin America). Still, there are issues, like intraracial colorism and student activism, that “School Daze” indeed touches on that “Drumline” doesn’t. LOVED “Medicine for Melancholy” (especially since San Fran is one of my favorite US cities) and saw “Brother to Brother” a few years ago in DC; you’re right, black film compilations and criticism tends to be extremely heteronormative, which ends up forgetting a huge segment of the black community. Thanks for bringing these titles up!

    @Laya: I read that “Hancock” piece on Dar Kush and was like, “damn.” The brother said everything that needed to be said about black representation in film. I actually met Tananarive Due at a writers conference years ago in Miami while I was a grad student there; we’d gone to the same undergrad (FAMU). PLEASE, PLEASE see “Eve’s Bayou” and I’ll look for “Something is Killing Tate.” Many thanks for the suggestions!

  7. For a view from another era why not Uptown Saturday Night, A Piece of the Action Cotton Comes to Harlem, Lady Sings The Blues, Brother from Another Planet, Watermelon Man, Cleopatra Jones among a few.

    • @Cheryl: I think I’ve only seen bits and pieces of “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” and I’m definitely overdue for reviewing some of the classics. These will get downloaded forthwith. And thanks a lot for the suggestions!

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