Black cinema has truly made its mark in pop culture. The talent of African American’s are superb and sublime. The early 70’s created the Blaxploitation genre where African American’s were evolving to higher ground post the Vietnam War. African American’s were angry, understandably, considering their troubled past of prejudice, and hence were not afraid to tell a story that would create impact and, in the long term, wake up America.
This year’s Oscars has created so much controversy as African American’s weren’t nominated for the past two years, but let us not forget about the amazing films that black American’s have graced us with.
#1 Boyz in the Hood
In 1991, Boyz in the Hood garnered much success and impact. Catapulting several rising actors to stardom. Cuba Gooding JR may not have won his Oscar for Jerry Maguire had he not shown his captivating charisma in this 90’s classic. Boyz in the Hood is the critically acclaimed story of three friends growing up in a South Central Los Angeles neighbourhood and of street life where friendship, danger and love combine reality. Writer/Director John Singleton captured the gritty life where a simple trip to the store could lead to death. The reality of urban LA gangs and drive by shootings scared America, but conveyed tragic realism of deprived areas. Strong willed father played by Laurence Fishburne guides his son Tre (Cuba Gooding JR) down the right path of a good future, despite the friends he associates with. The film taught us that in South Central, violence seems like the only recourse. It was gritty, poetic and at the best of times, sentimental.
#2 Jungle Fever
Jungle Fever, also released in 1991, is a powerful film where Writer/Director Spike Lee explored the provocative consequences of interracial relationships. Wesley Snipes plays Flipper Purify, a black architect who begins an affair with Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), his working class secretary. Their relationship causes them to be scrutinised by their friends, cast-out from their families and discriminated by neighbours in this provocative view of New York City life. The supporting cast had Samuel L. Jackson playing Snipes’ brother and Halle Berry as low-life crack addicts. Berry claimed that in order to prepare herself for the role of a ‘Crack-Ho,’ she “didn’t bathe for a month.” Snipes and Sciorra’s chemistry on screen is so sexual, that it made interracial relationships look so forbidden. This was one of the first films that explored interracial relationships in a brutal depiction, whereas 1967’s Guess who’s Coming to Dinner explored the topic in a more heart-warming aspect.
#3 New Jack City
What is about 1991 that captured black cinema at its best? New Jack City directed by Mario Van Peebles is a state of the art gangster movie. It is simply mesmerising, spectacular and preachy. Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) is an African American success story, an entrepreneur who’s found the ultimate cash crop: crack. Nino thinks he’s untouchable but he’s wrong, as a handful of street smart cops are determined to bring him down. New Jack City is one of the ultimate gangster movies of the 90’s with a powerful anti–drug message. The hip hop soundtrack is catchy with Ice T rapping the scintillating track New Jack Hustler. However to see him be the lead protagonist, was a perfect opportunity considering it was his debut film. Snipes’ witty line, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is now part of pop culture, simply meaning we look out for one another, but how he delivers the line is what makes his performance an impressive protagonist. The film opened our eyes to Chris Rock playing Pookie, a crack addict going undercover to take down Nino Brown. It’s a must see film containing sex, drugs, and rap. Who knew that Chris Rock would host the Oscars many years later?
#4 Dead Presidents
In 1995, black cinema brought us a film by the Hughes brothers. Dead Presidents is bloody, brutal and brilliant. Following the success from 1993’s Menace II Society Albert and Allen Hughes reminded the world that a black Vietnam veteran would return back to America and be a destined failure. A Vietnam vet adjusts to life after the war while trying to support his family, but the chance of a better life may involve crime and bloodshed and murder. Larenz Tate’s performance is intense, cool and hard-hitting. The soundtrack of soul is what defines this film, with the likes of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes. For a 90’s film to capture an era of the late 60’s and early 70’s was so real, it taught us that the African American soldiers had it the hardest as America never praised them for their bravery, but only diminished them.
#5 Super Fly
Finally, 1972’s Super Fly, one of the original blaxpoitation films is a perceptive, fast paced, very important piece of work. Priest played by the late Ron O’Neal is a prince of the streets. He’s a charismatic businessman who wants out of the cocaine-dealing. But a mysterious King Pin doesn’t want him to change his ways. This all leads to trigger murder, revenge and double crossing that will push Priest into a corner. Super Fly is one of the more enduring streetwise films of its era. The sizzling soundtrack of Curtis Mayfield is so fresh and funky that for an early 70’s film, it introduced cool in the ghetto. This film influenced Quentin Tarantino as he stole and parodied scenes from this film for Jackie Brown as the scenes where Pam Grier double crosses Samuel L. Jackson is practically identical. What must make this film most notable is the fashion in this film was truly out of this world. Big pimp coats, big hats with feathers, big heeled boots, gigantic collars and flairs show it was truly a film made for its time and still stands out to be a must see movie.
Obviously these are just 5 films in a thousand choices for black cinema. But they identified an era and taught us that life for the African American was far from sunshine and rainbows. A special mention must go to Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and Clockers. But to a subjective point of view, Jungle Fever is Spike Lee’s masterpiece.