The Most Important Film of Black Cinema

While we all have different ‘favorite’ films in black cinema, it is my argument, using the criteria I’ve established (relevance to black culture, the legacy or shelf life of the project after the initial release, the actual craftmanship of the filmmaking, the degree to which the film was noticed/recognized by the mainstream, and the Apollo or ‘Wow’ moments that stand out from the project) one film stands as more important to black cinema than any other film made to this point.  It probably comes as little surprise that I feel the most important film has been made by black cinema’s most important filmmaker, Spike Lee.  After the production and response that came with the second most important black film, Do the Right Thing, Spike was well versed in the good and bad of controversy.

Because of that, there really wasn’t anyone more qualified than Spike to do a film about one of the most controversial and polarizing African-Americans in history.  For those of us who admire and respect him, the film is a fitting tribute to his greatness.  For those of you who ‘don’t get it’ or simply can’t stand him, you (as always) will find elements in Spike’s film to validate your point of view…

Kobe Doin’ Work is a 2009 Spike Lee documentary that shows us what a typical NBA game is like through the eyes of the best player of his generation, and one of the best ever, former MVP, four time NBA champion, and future first ballot Hall of Famer, Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bean Bryant.

Put down the cell phone.  Delete that hostile text message, email, or comment you were about to send me.  It’s called sarcasm people.  GOTCHA!!!

 OK, now I’ll ‘make it plain…’

Malcolm X is a 1992 Spike Lee film based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  Anchored by an Oscar worthy performance by Denzel Washington, the film is a 210 minute epic that rode in on a new wave of black nationalism, and in large part it delivered on the hype that surrounded it.

On to the tale of the tape…

Relevance: 

Fade in from the Warner Brothers logo.  The introductory speaker hypes the crowd and introduces Malcolm.  Malcolm (Denzel), also in voiceover, starts in with a vicous tirade, charging the white race with all the genocide that’s happened throughout history.  The visual over this is two-fold: footage of the Rodney King beating that sparked the Los Angeles riots, and an American flag burning, until it forms an “X.”

Any questions?

Legacy:

If you want one reason why this is the most important black film made to this point, here is my argument:  Spike always had it in mind to make a 3 hour epic.  Warner Brothers had the money, they wanted a 2 hour movie tops.  Spike shot everything he wanted to shoot, put most of his salary back in the movie, hoping WB would get on board after the film was nearly done.  Nope.  Spike ran out of money, the bond company (i.e. the insurance if you’re not familiar with film lingo) wasn’t chipping in.  This project was dead.  So Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tracy Chapman, Prince, and Peggy Cooper-Cafritz gave Spike the money to finish the film.  Read that last sentence as many times as you need to.  Those were at the time, and continue to be some of the most wealthy and influential African-Americans of this or any other generation, and they all chipped in so Spike could finish his film.  Warner Brothers eventually manned up and provided the financing, but with the possible exception of the election of the last President of the U.S., there may never be a better example of a harmony between a philosophy (blacks supporting/investing in our own) and seeing that philosophy carried out.

Craft: 

“You see, Islam is the only religion that gives both husband and wife a true understanding of what love is.  The Western ‘love’ concept, you take it apart, it really is lust.  But love transcends just the physical.  Love is disposition, behavior, attitude, thoughts, likes, dislikes – these things make a beautiful woman, a beautiful wife.  This is the beauty that never fades.  You find in your Western civilization that when a man’s wife’s physical beauty fails, she loses her attraction.  But Islam teaches us to look into the woman, and teaches her to look into us.”

– From the Autobiography

I’ll be the first to admit it often gets lost in the shuffle of the politics and messages of this film, but on repeated viewings, it’s harder to ignore how well written and acted the relationship between Malcolm and Betty (Angela Bassett) is played out.  Although it’s obviously based on two real, high profile figures in black history, it still deserves to be mentioned among the best love stories in black film.  Their courtship is sweet and very high-school sweetheart-ish, she’s devoted to him and him to her.  When the people he’s representing stab him in the back, it’s his wife who calls him out on it and challenges him.  As played in the film, she is truly his best friend.  The revelation struck me so hard I asked a few of my happily married friends, “Is your wife your best friend?”, and they all answered without hesitation, “Absolutely.”  I have friends who are looking for their Claire Huxtable or Michelle Obama (the woman who can be bad by herself and together they will be a power couple).  And obviously, there is nothing wrong with that model in the least.  Personally though, I’m looking for my Betty Shabazz (as played by Angela Bassett):  loyal, nurturing, maternal, but who will challenge me without hesitation if I’m wrong or out of line.  A true ‘partner in crime’, or as the young people say, a woman who will ‘Make Me Better.’

Crossover: 

Absolutely; even today this might have been the most hyped black film made to date.  They were rocking X baseball caps in the suburbs; it wasn’t even politics, it was fashionable.  Denzel lost the Oscar to Pacino who won for ‘Scent of a Woman’.  Definitely a career Oscar, similar to when Denzel did finally win Best Actor…for ‘Training Day.’  Spike was still in his prime pissing Hollywood off in general, so no little golden men for him.  Still hasn’t gotten any; will be interesting to see if he gets the Scorsese treatment somewhere down the line.

Apollo:

The dead man walking sequence of Malcolm going to the Audobon.  It was the first time I remember hearing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,”;  in all of black cinema there may never be a more perfect use of music with images.  But that’s just the beginning.  You have the cross cutting of Betty and the kids, the assassins, and the ‘Agency’ all converging on the Ballroom.  You have the signature Spike Lee ‘shot’ of Malcolm floating down the sidewalk.  And the coup de gras is the nice bystander telling an exhausted Malcolm to keep ‘doing what he’s doing’, followed up with the line, “Jesus will protect you.”  And yes, I’ll admit personal bias here and say that line and Malcolm’s (Denzel’s) reaction is my single favorite shot/reverse shot in any film.

So there you have it.  Later this month, the most important black television show…

One thought on “The Most Important Film of Black Cinema

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