The Watch List, Part Deux: More Black Joy & Pain in Classic Film

Tricia Nelson
4 min readJun 17, 2020
The wise words of Dorian Corey (R.I.P.), captured in the documentary “Paris Is Burning.” (Image: BestLifeOnline.com)

Question: If you removed “struggle films” from the Black movie mainstream — that’s capital “S” struggle: i.e., discrimination, marginalization and the ever-mutating spawn of enslavement — what would be left to represent the culture onscreen?

Answer: Superheroes, Tyler Perryland, the oeuvre of Spike Lee, some indie gems and the evolution of Eddie Murphy.

How is that even acceptable?

On that note:

  • Is there an unwritten rule that films with more than one Black lead can only be about true-life adversity, fictional adversity, criminality, buffoonery or fantastical nonsense?
  • What’s the reason Black people/families aren’t represented in live-action sci-fi and children’s features?
  • How come “Blackenstein” (1973) isn’t a Halloween season staple?
  • Why is “Gone With the Wind” (1939) still a thing (Fact: the 2019 domestic re-release made more than double the international box office of a buzzed-about documentary nominated for two Oscars that year) while “Porgy & Bess” (1959) has been missing (and — surprise! — no one appears to be looking for it) since the 1970s?

Let’s use this pivotal moment to keep asking the hard questions, bringing uncomfortable answers to light and demanding much-needed remedies. Just don’t sleep on the wealth of stories that already exist on film and deserve revisiting — Black people of a certain time being audacious, resilient, transcendent, flawed, ridiculous, aggravating, hilarious, beautiful … and real.

Sammy Davis Jr. as Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess.”

Black & White (& Vanished)

Stormy Weather (1943)

St. Louis Blues (1958)

Porgy and Bess (1959)*

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

*Seriously, this Technicolor joint features a whole Classic Black Hollywood DREAM TEAM: Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, plus a cameo by Maya Angelou. James Baldwin was not a fan of the film, but that doesn’t justify it being nearly impossible to screen.

Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and movie director Sidney Poitier in “Buck and the Preacher.”

’70s Fun & Foolishness

Buck and the Preacher (1972)

Five on the Black Hand Side (1973)

Let’s Do it Again (1975)

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)

“Car Wash:” a multi-racial ensemble cast, cameos galore and raunchy fun.

That Soundtrack, Tho

Super Fly (1972) ed. note: Curtis Mayfield

The Harder They Come (1972) ed. note: Jimmy Cliff

Car Wash (1976) ed. note: Rose Royce

Girl 6 (1996) ed. note: Prince

“Greased Lightning,” co-starring Pam Grier, was based on the true-life story of Wendell Scott, the first Black NASCAR race winner.

Rated “R” for Richard Pryor

Uptown Saturday Night (1974)

Blazing Saddles (1974) ed. note: written by

Greased Lightning (1977)

Which Way Is Up? (1977)

“Cooley High” inspired two television series: “What’s Happening!!” (1976–1979) and “The White Shadow” (1978–1981) … as well as the debut album from Boyz II Men.

In & Out of the Classroom

Cooley High (1975)

Hoop Dreams (1984)

School Daze (1988)

The Inkwell (1994)

Greek mythology meets vibrant Carnaval do Brasil and melancholy bossa nova. This is “Black Orpheus.”

Art

Black Orpheus (Brazil, 1959)

The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

Paris Is Burning (1990)

Beneath Clouds (Australia, 2002)

A relic of the time featuring Redd Foxx, Pearl Bailey and a cameo by Wayland Flowers and Madame.

Camp

Blacula (1972)

Coffy (1973)

Norman … Is That You? (1976)

Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

The director Oscar Micheaux made the first all-Black feature film. His work got a hat tip in the first episode of HBO’s “Watchmen.”

Mavericks

Swing! (1938) director: Oscar Micheaux

Watermelon Man (1970) director: Melvin Van Peebles

Killer of Sheep (1978) director: Charles Burnett

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T (1992) director: Leslie Harris

In addition to availability on the popular subscription services, some of these titles can also be streamed for free via the Kanopy and Hoopla apps.

For expert commentary on Black cinema, follow the work of author Donald Bogle, Turner Classic Movies host (“Silent Sunday Nights”), Jacqueline Stewart and organizations like the African American Film Critics Association (@TheAAFCA).

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Did you miss Part 1? Read it here.

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Tricia Nelson

Native New Yorker Valley Girl. Eclipse-chaser, lightworker, shade-thrower. TriciaNelson.com | @trish2power