*Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review, January 2020
Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day are still to come, but arguably the most important tradition of the year’s second month begins first thing on the first, and lasts all month long.
Yes, it is once more African-American History Month, February being the page on the calendar boasting the birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Though it’s not without detractors (Morgan Freeman famously noted, “I don’t want a Black history month. Black history is American history.”) and many have questioned the concept of confining the celebration to a single month, as opposed to more enthusiastically integrating black history into mainstream education throughout the rest of the year, in light of continued criticisms levied at premiere showbiz awards for a lack of diversity, and being a time when the discussion about race and representation in Hollywood is becoming increasingly complex, it’s inarguably at the very least a good excuse to vary up your viewing.
Here then are my picks for five underseen flicks that prominently feature African Americans in front of or behind the camera — or both.
1. ‘Buck and the Preacher’ (1972)
Directed by Sidney Poitier
The directorial debut of Poitier, who also co-wrote and stars alongside Harry “King of Calypso” Belafonte, sees him playing the titular Buck, a former soldier leading a wagon train of African Americans fleeing Louisiana and looking to make new lives away from the South in the immediate wake of the Civil War. He’s tough, smart and pragmatic, bartering with American Indian tribes along the way for the right to hunt their buffalo and ensure his charges safe passage through treacherous territory.
Meanwhile, a gang of violent white men have been hired by vengeful plantation owners back in Louisiana to raid the wagon train and either scare the so-called “Exodusters” back to Louisiana or kill them trying.
Belafonte plays Willis Oaks Rutherford, a crafty character claiming to be a preacher but who acts more like a crook, and the incomparable Ruby Dee is Bucks’s wife Ruth. The trio set themselves to doing whatever it takes to get the wagon train to safety in this unusual boundary-breaking western that features a soundtrack composed by jazz great Benny Carter and the musical stylings of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Don Frank Brooks.
Though not an immediate success, and to my mind not sufficiently known today, this is a truly unique cinematic offering that unquestionably deserves more attention.
2. ‘Ganja & Hess’ (1973)
Directed by Bill Gunn
An experimental horror film. A dark and dreamy fantasy. A strange love story.
Though (quite fairly) best know for being the hero in “Night of the Living Dead,” Duane Jones gives perhaps his most artistically demanding performance in this, one of the most singular vampire stories of all time.
Written and directed by playwright/novelist/actor Gunn (“One of the most under-appreciated filmmakers of his time,” according to Spike Lee) the film follows the exploits of anthropologist Dr. Hess Green (Jones), who becomes a vampire after his unstable assistant (Gunn) stabs him with an ancient cursed dagger. Green makes short work of his assailant and, while he’s adapting to his new existence, gets a surprise visitor. He falls in love with his assistant’s worried widow, Ganja (Marlene Clark), who quickly learns Green’s dark secret — but is more interested than wary.
It was respected immediately, winning the critics’ choice prize at Cannes, though it remains comparatively less discussed than other, less worthy vampire movies.
Interestingly, though he’d reportedly insisted, ”The last thing I want to do is make a black vampire film,” Gunn finally accepted the project after decided to use vampirism as a metaphor for addiction — and this was way before Anne Rice rose to fame or Abel Ferrara made the point just as stylishly (though much less subtly) in “The Addiction.”
3. ‘Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror’ (2019)
Directed by Xavier Neal-Burgin
For the nonfiction film fans, and at least slightly related to this list’s previous entry, this documentary examines the history of African Americans in horror films — both their role in the making of and their depiction therein.
It features many movie clips, and interviews with Jordan Peele, Tananarive Due, Keith David, William Crain and a lot more, while taking a look back that starts with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “Birth of a Nation” and leading up to examine titles from the marquees of today.
In the early decades, people of color in horror were servants at best, maybe comedic sidekicks, and mostly weren’t present at all. The 1960s and ’70s saw as many codified stereotypes as broken boundaries. Then the great whitewashing of Hollywood in the 1980s forced black people largely out of the genre altogether. But the ’90s and early days of the new millennium were comparatively a pretty good time for African Americans making and being featured in scary movies — the doc hits all the highlights: “Candyman,” “The People Under the Stairs,” “Attack the Block,” etc. — and theater screens of today are even more likely to boast the names of people of color in the credits.
The film is based on a book of the same name by Robin R. Means Colem — and I cannot recommend it enough. Even if you don’t love scary movies, this incredibly specific view of pop culture history is remarkably revealing and offers a fascinating way to reconsider the evolution of race relations in America.
4. ‘Miles Ahead’ (2015)
Directed by Don Cheadle
Cheadle was born to play Miles Davis, and though the rest of this free-form biopic doesn’t quite live up to his performance it is a unique and compelling vision worth seeking out.
The story skips around in time a lot while depicting Davis’ attempts to get his career back on track following a period of inactivity and heavy drug addiction in the 1970s, the lasting effects of his troubled marriage to a former dancer (Emayatzy Corinealdi), and his strange (fictional) friendship with a journalist (Ewan McGregor) who, after forcing his way into Davis’ house, eventually accompanies the troubled genius on an adventure to recover a stolen recording of the man’s most recent compositions.
Personally, I like a little more authenticity in my biopics (I’m glaring at you, too, “Bohemian Rhapsody”) but, according to Cheadle, his approach to the film was not to produce a biopic at all but create plausible, largely fictional vignettes of Davis’ life that interpreted the creative process Davis used in the composition of his music.
Viewed through that lens, in the spirit of improv jazz and artistic experimentation, I got to say I dig this movie. It’s worth seeing for Cheadle’s performance alone, and the soundtrack is predictably wonderful, acting itself as a kind of double portrait of Davis since there are both contemporary songs by more recent artists inspired by him and his own original compositions included.
5. ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ (1995)
Directed by Carl Franklin
I can understand why this neo-noir mystery is not often ranked as one of Denzel Washington’s best; the guy had a lot of hits. However, in terms of unique latter-day noir flicks and fresh takes on tried-and-true tropes, this one deserves a spot in any conversation.
It’s Los Angeles, circa 1948, and Washington’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a World War II veteran, has been unfairly laid off by an aircraft manufacturer. Desperate for money, he’s introduced by a bartender friend to a shady white guy (Tom Sizemore) looking for some help tracking down a missing dame, see?
She (Jennifer Beals) is assumed to be hiding somewhere in the black part of town, and by the way is also the girlfriend of a wealthy man who was the favorite in the ongoing mayoral race before suddenly dropping out. The bounty is only $100, but he needs the money so Rawlins becomes a private investigator — despite having no real training or qualifications — and begins scouring the juke joints along Central Avenue for the lady.
This is noir, so of course there’s more going on than meets the eye. But the movie, based on a novel by Walter Mosley, is a delightfully idiosyncratic example of the genre.
As one critic said, “Hard-boiled fiction is a been-around genre about done-that individuals, so the pleasant air of newness and excitement that ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ gives off isn’t due to its familiar find-the-girl plot. Rather it’s the film’s glowing visual qualities, a striking performance by Denzel Washington and the elegant control Carl Franklin has over it all that create the most exotic crime entertainment of the season.”
Given noir remains one of the whitest of subgenres, perhaps of this season, too.