Tag Archive: bill cosby


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…

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The Cosby Show, by almost any measure, was the definitive 80s sitcom.  Based on the real life and stand up routine of Bill Cosby, the show revolved around the Huxtable family.  Patriarch Dr. Cliff Huxtable, his lawyer wife Clair, and their five kids.  A show that really doesn’t need much of an introduction, on to the tale of the tape…

Relevance:  While comics like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx made their name by telling jokes aimed square at the racial differences between us, Cosby’s humor was built more around being a father, a husband, and the ups and downs of family.  I make this point again to say that while we all saw the superficial element, The Cosby Show rarely, if ever, addressed race in a direct way.  The culture was always there from beginning to end, but with the success of the show wasn’t necessarily because of, nor in spite of the family being black.  They just…were.

Legacy:  Where to begin?  Well, the direct ‘legacy’ of course was A Different World, which was impactful enough to earn its own place on this countdown.  On the business side, The Cosby Show turned Thursday nights into “Must See Television”  (not Friends or Seinfeld, The Cosby Show came first.)  Speaking of Jerry Seinfeld, him and many, many other stand up comedians owe him a debt of gratitude for establishing the ‘stand up comedian turning his act into a sitcom’ genre.  There are literally too many to name at this point, but The Cosby Show proved how successful that could be.  Am I missing anything?  Oh yes, in terms of why it stands where it stands on this countdown, for the vast number of black (and white) kids who had never seen a black doctor OR a black lawyer in their lives, The Cosby Show planted the idea in their heads that yes, it’s possible to have a black family like this.  Can not be underestimated.

Craft:  Nobody was ‘looking’ for a show like this, to have the impact it had, when it came out.  Even in reruns and syndication, The Cosby Show holds up extremely well.  I personally will always have a soft spot for the scene where Cliff educates Theo about finances using Monopoly money, but you can look through every season and find all kinds of (clean) and funny segments.  If casting is 80 percent of the battle, then Phylicia Rashad, Lisa Bonet, Malcolm Jamal-Warner, Tempest Bledsoe, and Keisha Knight-Pulliam deserve all the credit in the world.

Crossover:  The undisputed number one show in the ratings for a good five or six years (until The Simpsons came along).  Winner of Emmys, Golden Globes, Image Awards.  Cliff Huxtable still wins polls as the best TV dad ever.  Not best black TV dad, best Dad.  Nuff said.

Apollo:  Come on now…

And on that note, I’m off to find me a woman and start my own Huxtable family.  The most important Black TV show of all time next month.

 

sweet-sweetback-baadasssss

The film that literally starts the discussion of modern black filmmaking, Sweet Sweetback on its most basic level is the story of one brotha on the run from the police.  If you know anything about black folks, our history, and our paranoia, you can easily insert the statement/joke, “Well, that’s a movie!” and be done with it right there.  But I’ll go a little deeper.  On to the tale of the tape…

Relevance:  It was the late 60s/early 70s.  JFK and RFK had been shot down, Dr. King had been shot down, Malcolm had been shot down.  The era of liberal optimism had come to a violent end.  Out of this climate came Melvin Van Peebles, who did some work here and there, but had a desire to do this story that spoke to the ‘brothas on the street.’  Needless to say, funding (or anything else) didn’t come falling out of the sky for this one.  So piece by piece he put it together (with a little help on the back end from young Bill Cosby) and this film was born.  When it opened it was given a well deserved X rating and barely screened.  But when it found its audience it found it.  Hollywood caught wind of the idea that ‘Hey, we can make dirt cheap movies for black audiences and easily make a profit” and the blaxploitation era was officially born.  I’m not going to get on my soapbox other than to say that lesson about making cheap films for black audiences has been remembered and forgotten at least three times in my very short lifetime.  Such is the Business (and life).  Moving on…

Legacy:  There’s the whole creating a 70s subgenre thing, but the best legacy for this movie was the film Badass!, written and directed by Melvin’s son Mario.  More than a tribute really, the film (which doesn’t hide the fact that Melvin stuck his young son in one of the original film’s most notorious sex scenes) is very solid in its own regard, and gives a great insight on how insane it was to get this film made (and the struggle of getting any independent film made truth be told).  Worthwhile viewing even if you’ve never seen the original.

Craft:  Sweet Sweetback is not in any sense of the word a ‘traditional’ film, so know that going in if you’re going to check it out for the first time.  I’ll award the points for this category to the group that did the soundtrack for the film.  A little outfit known as Earth, Wind and Fire.  Perhaps you’ve heard of them?

Crossover:  Business wise absolutely.  Hollywood took notice and Shaft, Superfly, Foxy Brown, Dolemite and countless others took their turns portraying the ‘Black Superman/Superwoman/Anti-Hero’.  But cross over audience wise?  Ehh…  Put it like this: this was said to be Huey P. Newton’s favorite film, so much so that it was required viewing for the Black Panther Party.  So yeah…

Apollo:  Absolutely; like I said, it earned its X rating.  A question I’ve often been asked over the years is ‘How do you simulate some of the more graphic sex scenes’ that you see in movie X or Y?  Well, it’s been said that there wasn’t any ‘simulation’ in this movie.  And um, guess how the title character earned his name?  Yup…

The film countdown continues next month with probably the most quotable black film of all time…

differentworld

Spun off from The Cosby Show, A Different World began as a sitcom about Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) going off to college, then quickly evolved into a show about all the characters (and issues) that went down at fictional HBCU Hillman College.  As critically acclaimed as it was popular, A Different World was nearly as popular as the show it was spun off of.

On to the tale of the tape…

Relevance: I will go out on a limb and say this will be the only network television show ever that will be take place at a Historically Black College or University.  When the show debuted, future Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei was part of the cast as Denise’s roommate Maggie, but once Debbie Allen (an HBCU grad) took charge, one of her first moves was to replace the white roommate with a pair of black roomies.  Hard to say it wasn’t authentic.

Legacy:  There is statistical evidence that enrollment in HBCUs went up while this program was on the air.  Beyond that, the number of names who passed through Hillman for an episode or a season is a who’s who of 90s black culture (Sinbad, Jada Pinkett, Tupac, Jesse Jackson to name a few).

Craft:  Over the course of the show’s run, A Different World was always very good for hitting us with the ‘A Very Special Episode’ at least once a season.  Whether it was Jesse Jackson’s visit, the date rape episode, the domestic violence episode, or any of the numerous episodes that dealt directly or indirectly with race and class, A Different World was able to tackle issues that were probably very important to Dr. Cosby, but would have felt ‘forced’ or otherwise inauthentic in an episode of The Cosby Show.

Crossover:  Thanks to its incredible lead in program, A Different World was always respected by the mainstream, even if it didn’t receive the same amount of overwhelming praise.  It’s hard to call it a crossover smash, but to have the run it had on NBC; it’s hard to imagine another show with a such a pronounced African-American backdrop getting that kind of play (sadly).

Apollo:  I think the entire Whitley-Dwayne Wayne relationship was kind of an Apollo moment.  I actually remember watching with my mother the episode where Whitley was about to marry that well to do, pretty boy brotha, but Dwayne came to the wedding and was getting dragged out when he begged Whitley to marry him (and he said yes).  This isn’t the space to get on a soapbox about the whole ‘new money’ vs. ‘legacy’ kid thing that plays out inside the black community, but I think every black kid gets fully introduced to that (as I did) in college, whether you went to an HBCU or not.

#9 is another landmark show of the 90s; come back later to find out what that is…