With February comes Black History Month. A time where we pay attention to the perseverance of African-Americans as they survived the brutal journey through the Middle Passage, the bondage of slavery, and its after-effects. After freedom was acquired, oppression was still something African-Americans had to endure, however, individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington Carver, and many more managed to gain recognition: whether it be for defying social norms or, for their inventions that were beneficial to this country.
Without a doubt, this is the month where many people will be watching films such as Spike Lee’s, “Malcolm X” or, the groundbreaking miniseries, “Roots.” Both “Roots” and “Malcolm X” tell amazing stories, however, I feel that there are many hidden gems showcasing Black History in its many forms. These films have either been lost to time until recently resurfacing on the internet, overshadowed by bigger productions that came out at the same time, or…they just were not shown on television enough.
Some of these stories are fictional. Some are not. Regardless, what they all have in common is placing black women at the forefront.
5. Cindy (1978)
“Cindy” much like “The Wiz” provides an all-black retelling of the classic fairytale, “Cinderella.” However, there is no magical kingdom as this musical comedy takes place in Harlem during the era of WWII. The movie begins with the titular character relocating from the Deep South to New York.
Cindy’s journey is no different than the ones of real black men and women who participated in The Great Migration. A time in which 6,000,000 Black Americans left the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West in pursuit of a better life. This mass migration occurred between 1916 and ended roughly in 1970.
When Cindy arrives in Harlem, she finds that her father – who she thought had an important job at a prestigious hotel – is actually a men’s room attendant living in poverty. Worse than that, Cindy learns that he is remarried. While enduring the disdain of her callous step-mother and wicked step-sisters, Cindy endures a marginalization similar to what Southern migrants endured from their Northern neighbors.
When sneaking out one night to a glamorous event, Cindy falls for a dashing army officer. But will she ever see him again?
“Cindy” holds positive ratings, standing at 7.2/10 on IDMB and it was nominated for the Emmy Awards in 1978 for, “Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design for Music-Variety.” Ultimately, “Cindy” is the most light-hearted film on this list, but sometimes what we need to see is fun things.
4. Claudine (1974)
“Claudine” is not a historical film in the sense it is trying to tell its viewers of a time long ago. Yet, with its themes and topic being so rooted in the era it was produced in, it provides an intimate glimpse into the life of a single black woman receiving welfare assistance in the early 70s. Not only that, but it reveals how social forces contributed to dismantling the black, nuclear family.
Federal welfare began in 1936 with the intention of meeting the needs of the American population. It was assumed that the public’s need for federal aid would decrease as employment improved, however, this idea was flawed due to racial discrimination in employment. Black people worked for less and, developments in the 1950s and 1960s further disadvantaged many black families.
Claudine receives government assistance. Yet, as a mother of six: she barely receives enough money to provide for basic necessities. This causes her to be employed as a housekeeper, earning a meager amount of money. Yet, this must be concealed from the frequently visiting social worker so that her benefits will not be reduced. Further problems arise when she falls in love with a garbage collector, but marrying him will cause her to lose her benefits altogether.
For her portrayal, Diahann Carroll was nominated for an Oscar of Best Actress at the 47th Academy Awards. The movie was also nominated for the Writers Guild of America for, “Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen.”
3. The Autobiography of Jane Pittman (1974)
Originally published as a book in 1971, “The Autobiography of Jane Pittman” preceded “Roots” by airing on television three years prior.
Taking place in Louisiana during the turbulent 1960s, when a curious journalist convinces a local woman – the 110-year-old Jane Pittman – to allow him to interview her, the viewers are allowed the opportunity of peering into Jane’s life as she reflects on being an enslaved child during the Civil War, to being a free adult witnessing various and countless injustices against her community. Over the course of an hour, we see not only American history unfolding, but how Jane herself endured love, happiness, heartbreak, and horror.
Although “The Autobiography of Jane Pittman” has yet to receive a reboot as “Roots” did, it received great recognition during the time of its release. The effects used to make Cecily Tyson go from 23 to 110 were considered realistic and extraordinary at the time. Furthermore, a total of 10 Awards were received.
One being a Directors Guild of America Award and the remaining nine being Emmy’s for, “Actress of the Year,” “Best Directing in Drama,” “Best Lead Actress in a Drama,” “Best Music Composition for a Special Program,” “Best Writing in Drama,” “Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design,” “Outstanding Achievement in Makeup,” “Outstanding Special – Comedy or Drama,” and “Outstanding Achievement in Any Area of Creative Techincal Crafts.”
2. The Josephine Baker Story (1991)
In this past December, actress Paula Patton voiced her aspirations in both producing and starring in a project centered around the life of Josephine Baker. Upon learning this I had mixed feelings, as a well-done film centered around this extraordinary woman already exists.
“The Josephine Baker Story” covers Baker’s life thoroughly, showing how she was born into a poor family in St. Louis and struggled to make a name for herself on the vaudeville circuit. Her ambition causes her to live in Paris, where she becomes highly regarded as an exotic dancer.
Even now, Josephine Baker is recognized for her famous banana skirt – her aesthetic has even been borrowed the beloved Beyonce. But, there is much more to this woman than performing. The film reveals how Josephine Baker served as a spy for the French Resistance during WWII and how she consequently became an activist for justice and equality.
The film received several awards, including an Emmy for, “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special.” Lynn Whitfield achieving this marked the first time a black woman ever won an award in this category. Additionally, Whitfield gained an NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, Mini-Series or Television Movie.” This film was also directed by Brian Gibson, who would go on to direct a much bigger biopic within the span of three years: “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”
Consequently, with all this information I must ask myself, “how could a better movie of Josephine Baker possibly exist?”
1. Bessie (2015)
The first time I saw this film, it provided me with the startling notion that many prominent artists of the past never knew of the lasting impact they would hold. In the case of Bessie Smith, while slowly making a comeback after a stint of coping with severe alcoholism, she ultimately dies from a mishap. Only to be buried at an unmarked grave until a tombstone was erected in 1970 – partially paid for by Janis Joplin.
But “Bessie” does not show her horrific death, nor does it take any liberties on handling the mysterious circumstances that surround it. This biopic focuses on the late singer’s come-up, downfall, and resurgence: ending on an optimistic note.
Throughout the film, Bessie must not only navigate through America’s racism but due to her sex, broad body and complexion, she faces a special sort of scrutiny from the African-American community, which includes colorism.
Bessie also copes with the stress of family trauma and strives to balance her life as a bisexual woman, having a secret relationship with the character “Lucille,” who is based on several of Smith’s real-life female companions and lovers, while in a tumultuous, dysfunctional marriage with Jack Gee, her real-life husband. The actress Mo’Nique also gives a splendid performance as Bessie’s mentor Ma Rainey, who was one of the first generations of blues singers to record.
If I enjoyed any movie, I will watch it more than once. With that being said, I have at least seen “Bessie” a total of four times. Not only did it receive positive reviews from critics, but it won an Emmy for, “Outstanding Television Movie.”
And that concludes this list.
Throughout Black History Month I intend to cover events as they come to Sinclair, shed light on historical individuals who may have contributed to the state, and of course, write more lists like this.