Can movies or television really teach us anything useful about African-American history? It's a reasonable question to ask as we begin Black History Month.
Can movies or television really teach us anything useful about African-American history?
It’s a reasonable question to ask as we begin Black History Month.
Certainly, the legacy of such famous films as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Gone With the Wind” (1939) was to give the public a distorted view of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction while offering portrayals of African Americans that were either virulently hateful or condescending.
And because of such films, says Patricia Turner, professor of African-American studies at University of California, Davis, “a lot of the public thinks that the plantation was the dominant entity on which slaves lived during the era of slavery.”
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In fact, Turner says, “very, very few slaves lived on plantations. Most slaves lived in units that had 10 or fewer slaves on them. Very few black women were domestic servants; you had to be extraordinarily wealthy to take a woman out of the fields and to have female household servants as we see in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘North and South’ and the other great plantation epics.
“They don’t match the way that slavery unfolded for blacks.”
Even a more recent film like “Glory” (1989), which is far better intentioned in its depiction of African Americans, “is pretty inaccurate historically,” Turner says. “The [Civil War] movie ends up being about the colonel, the white man, rather than about the African-American soldiers.
“The movie gives you the impression that the soldiers were largely from the South and were illiterate, and they weren’t. They were free blacks from the North and were fairly well educated for the most part.”
Getting the story right
So, the answer to the question: Can movies or television teach us anything useful about African-American history?
It’s a qualified yes. Some movies and TV series have succeeded in getting the story right, or at least better.
For recommendations of some worth checking out, we talked to Turner as well as Roberto Pomo, a professor of theater and film studies at California State University, Sacramento, and Michele Foss Snowden, an assistant professor of communications at CSUS who has written about race in film and television.
From television, all three cited Alex Haley’s 1977 miniseries “Roots” as a more accurate treatment of slavery.
“What ‘Roots’ does,” Turner says, “is give you an African-American point of view, and it’s certainly the first to say this is what [slavery] looks like.”
For Pomo, an Argentine immigrant who came to the United States as a teenager, ” ‘Roots’ was … a tremendous awakening. It allowed me to understand the plight of black culture.”
Snowden also recommends the 1993 movie “Sankofa,” made by UCLA-trained Ethiopian director Haile Gerima. It’s about an African-American supermodel (Oyafunmike Ogunlano) working at a photo shoot in West Africa in a building that had been a holding area for African slaves about to be shipped to America.
As the model explores the building, Snowden says, “she finds herself transported back in time, and she becomes a slave who gets sent to North America.” The re-enactments show the brutality of the “middle passage” and slavery.
Pomo adds that Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” (1997), the story of a mutiny aboard a slave ship in 1839, is an “excellent film” and “very powerful.”
With regard to the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws, Turner says Denzel Washington’s current film, “The Great Debaters,” about a debate team at an African-American college in Texas during the 1930s, “was very well done. It’s not a story that is commonly told — the notion of black higher education during that era — (and it includes) a range of different black characters.”
And Pomo views “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) as “an attempt by Hollywood to make it right, and it works. It is a landmark Hollywood film that vividly portrays racism in the 1930s.”
Biopics stand out
Several biopics have presented thoughtful historical looks at prominent African-American musicians: “Bird” (1988), starring Forest Whitaker as jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker; “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), in which Diana Ross portrays singer Billie Holiday; and “Ray” (2004), featuring Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles.
The documentary “A Great Day in Harlem,” Jean Bach’s 1994 film about a famous photograph from 1958 featuring virtually all the contemporary greats of jazz, is also highly recommended by Turner as “a terrific slice of urban New York and music.”
Turner says she is a “big fan” of the historical TV movies made by Cicely Tyson in the 1970s, such as “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “A Woman Called Moses,” in which Tyson portrayed Harriet Tubman. In addition, she praises Kasi Lemmons’ 1997 movie “Eve’s Bayou,” which is set in 1962 Louisiana.
All three experts praise many of Spike Lee’s films, particularly “Malcolm X” (1992), with Turner citing Washington’s “terrific performance,” Snowden noting its “historical importance” and Pomo mentioning its “epic” quality.
But Turner is especially critical of one prominent film about the civil-rights movement — “Mississippi Burning” (1988). “It glorifies the FBI and is not historically accurate,” she says.
In addition to these historical films and TV movies, there are films and shows that portrayed African Americans honestly and fairly in their own time — and now, with the passage of decades, survive as historical documents themselves.
Turner and Pomo point to the work of independent African-American film director Oscar Micheaux. His films from the 1910s through the 1940s, such as “Within Our Gates” and “The Scar of Shame,” Pomo says, let us “see characters who are realistic and not stereotypical at all.”
Pomo also mentions some Hollywood-made films from the late 1920s through the 1940s with all-black casts — “Hallelujah,” “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather” — that managed to “allow black performers to really shine in the eyes of Hollywood.”
“A Raisin in the Sun,” the 1961 film version of Lorraine Hansbury’s play, “gives you a slice of 1950s life,” Turner says.
For other images of the 1960s, Turner recommends 1964’s “Nothing but a Man,” starring Ivan Dixon as a young man confronting both racism and his inner demons.
Snowden cites the 1968-71 TV series “Julia,” in which Diahann Carroll starred as a widowed single mother and a nurse. “It wasn’t a comedy and it wasn’t making fun of her.”
Considering Sidney Poitier’s two big films from 1967 — Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night,” in which he plays a Northern police detective investigating a murder in Mississippi; and Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” where Poitier becomes engaged to a white woman, much to the chagrin of both his and her parents — Turner notes that the “real accomplishment” of both is having “a black star sharing the screen with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and Rod Steiger.”
From the 1970s, Turner recommends “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” “an interesting film from just after the civil-rights era.”
Pomo says the “blaxploitation” movies of the 1970s need to be re-examined. Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971), for instance, “makes an important comment about American politics through the eyes of a black American director.
“The ‘blaxploitation’ movement reveals a great deal about African-American attitudes and their connection to the public.”