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?