For the second week of this column’s celebration of Black History Month, I considered two topics. The first would be in honor of yesterday’s President’s Day and honor all the Black actors who have been called on to play that role in film, but even in fiction, that list is depressingly short and leaning towards poor representation (plus, having never seen The Man, I can’t even comment on the prime example). Instead, with the Oscars in less than a week, I thought I’d take the time to honor the legacy of the Black actors, writers, directors, and more who have come before and those who are eligible this year.
Hattie McDaniel is the obvious candidate to start any discussion on the Oscars honoring Black actors as she was the first to be nominated in any category as well as the first to win. She may have won Best Supporting Actress for a performance in the truly execrable, racist, bloated, and tedious Gone with the Wind and in a role where she was saddled with the characteristic stereotypical role of Mammy, but her performance is a huge achievement nonetheless. Still, it was a controversial performance in the Black community as it (and many of McDaniel’s roles after) were seen as promoting stereotypes while McDaniel herself said “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” Sadly, it’s the kind of controversy that has not gone away over the years (see Kaepernick, Colin) where the decision about just accepting the money or speaking out can still be mutually exclusive for many.
Aside from a 1948 honorary Oscar for James Baskett for his performance as Uncle Remus in Song of the South (once again courting controversy for its racist content), the next nominee would come in the form of Ethel Waters 1949 performance in Pinky. It’s a solid movie on its own gaining controversy this time more from racists (and led to the important Supreme Court decision Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson). Waters’ performance as the grandmother of a light skinned Black woman passing for white (and played by the white Jeanne Crain) isn’t far from the stereotypes of the era, and though she represents a step in the evolution from say the mother in the original Imitation of Life to the mother in the sequel to that film (which would earn Juanita Moore a nomination in 1959), she’s still being asked to play much of the same character.
In the 1950s, Black actors were able to break into both of the lead acting awards. The 1954 musical adaptation of the opera Carmen, Carmen Jones, provided Dorothy Dandridge with her opportunity to breakout and while I may not care for the film as a whole (admirable more in ambition than execution from Preminger), Dandridge is excellent in the lead role, one that stands out starkly from so many of these before and since by the role having nothing to do with her race. Sidney Poitier earned his first nomination in 1958 for The Defiant Ones, a story of two men (one Black and one white) escaped from a chain gang and one in which Poitier’s great performance is allowed to avoid many of the stereotypes required of those that came before him. Poitier would become the first Black actor to win a lead award when he would win five years later for Lilies of the Field.
The ’60s provided a number of firsts for Black men (though Beah Richards was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1967). 1969 saw Rupert Crosse earn the first Support Actor nomination for The Reivers while strides behind screen were also made. Duke Ellington became the first Black man nominated for Best Original Score (for Paris Blues) in 1961, an achievement he would later be joined in by Calvin Jackson and Quincy Jones before the decade was out. Quincy Jones (along with Bob Russell) would also become the first Black man nominated for Best Original Song, for “The Eyes of Love” (from Banning) in 1967 and again a year later for “For Love of Ivy” (from the film of the same name). Hugh A. Robertson would also be nominated for Film Editing for Midnight Cowboy in 1969, the only African-American in that category until 2016 when Joi McMillon earned a nomination for Moonlight.
Since then, we’ve slowly seen first time nominations come in with Writing – Adapted Screenplay (1972, Lonne Elder for Sounder), Writing – Original Screenplay (1972, Suzanne de Passe for Lady Sings the Blues), Sound Mixing (1978, Willie D. Burton for The Buddy Holly Story), Best Picture (1985, Quincy Jones for The Color Purple), Documentary Feature (1987, Callie Crossley for Bridge to Freedom), Director (1991, John Singleton for Boyz n the Hood), Short Film Live Action (1991, David Massey for Last Breeze of Summer), Costume Design (1992, Ruth E. Carter for Malcolm X), Cinematography (1998, Remi Adefarasin for Elizabeth), Documentary – Short Subject 2000, Leelai Demoz for On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom), Short Film – Animated (2017, Kobe Bryant for Dear Basketball which also won), and two more added this year in Animated Feature (Peter Ramsey for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Production Design (Hannah Beachler for Black Panther).
There have also been first time wins for Original Song (1971, Isaac Hayes for “Theme from Shaft” from Shaft), Supporting Actor (1982, Louis Gossett Jr. for An Officer and a Gentleman), Original Score (1984, Prince for Purple Rain), Best Sound Mixing (1988, Willie D. Burton for Bird), Lead Actress (2001, Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball), Writing – Adapted Screenplay (2009, Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious), Documentary – Short Subject (2009, Roger Ross Williams for Music by Prudence), Documentary Feature (2012, T. J. Martin Undefeated), Best Picture (2013, Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave), and most recently Writing – Original Screenplay (2017, Jordan Peele for Get Out). It’s not been nearly enough, but it’s a start and it’s important to remember just how far we’ve come and to look how depressingly recent so many of those firsts are.
Aside from those Animated Feature and Production Design nominations, Black artists are also nominated this year for Picture (Spike Lee and Jordan Peele for BlacKkKlansman), Director (Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman), Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali for Green Book), Supporting Actress (Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk), Writing – Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk and Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman), Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter for Black Panther), Documentary Feature (RaMell Ross for Hale County This Morning, This Evening), Score (Terence Blanchard for BlacKkKlansman), Original Song (Kendrick Lamar, Sounwave, SZA, and Anthony Tiffith for “All the Stars” from Black Panther), and there will be an Honorary Academy Award given to Cicely Tyson.
It’s quite the varied collection of talent with some of the boldest works of the year (BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and Hale County This Morning, This Evening) represented. I don’t want to get into the obvious snubs or into another discussion about Green Book‘s racial politics, instead, I’d rather just honor those who did and focus on the positive. BlacKkKlansman truly is a coming out of the wilderness for Spike Lee. His films have always had a strong racial component to them, but it’s been a long while since that element has worked so well in a film as he offers a surprisingly nuanced take on the subject matter from a man known for his bluntness. Regina King is one of many powerful performers in If Beale Street Could Talk, but it’s not hard to see why she got singled out and Jenkins’ screenplay deftly navigates some tricky waters to tell a beautiful and surprisingly hopeful story.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening is not for everyone and a challenging work that refuses to conform to your expectations about what a documentary about two Black youths will look like. Whether or not all the elements work is up to debate, but it’s a standout work in a sea of what can feel like cookie-cutter works. Black Panther managed to successfully create a world that captured the imagination of people and stayed in the popular discourse for months (it sure wasn’t the fight scenes that kept it there), and the production and costume design married traditional African elements with a futurist aesthetic to make something that never felt exploitative and instead by most accounts seemed to be empowering.
For this week’s topic, feel free to discuss the past Black Oscar nominees and winners. Your favorites, your gripes, maybe even your egregious snubs.
Doc Pick of the Week
Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (2018) dir. Olivia Lichtenstein (Showtime): It’s a busy week for this section so before we get into today’s doc of the week, I’m gonna self-promote my own writing and just say you could check out the Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts which are now playing in theaters and VOD before the Oscars. There’s certainly some good stuff in there and you get the privileged of reading more of my writing if you click that link (as if you needed any more of that). There’s also another thematic doc this week you could check out in United Skates which just premiered on HBO last night and is a very good look at roller rinks and their impact on black history.
The official pick of the week is another premiere for this week and focuses on a Black artist at that. For bonus points and extra appeal, he’s a Philadelphia native. Teddy Pendergrass got his big break as the lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes before embarking on a solo career of his own. Of course, that solo career and his life were nearly permanently ended by a car accident that left him a quadriplegic. I’m not going to pretend it’s a documentary that’s anything special in form, but he’s still a fascinating subject. In fact, I’d almost say that the portion following the accident may be the least interesting part about him. I’d rather see a Tales from the Tour Bus segment on him (which those sections more closely resemble), his influence, his struggles, the characters he came across, and the amount of drugs and number of women its very well established he went through than the more generically inspirational latter bits.
All Times EST
Week 5 of this section continues with the 31 Days of Oscar on TCM. This section will highlight my favorite titles, the interesting showings, and maybe a title or two I don’t like but are notable anyway.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? – 2/19 1:00 PM – How many times must TCM replay this…
Philadelphia – 2/20 4:00 AM – Let’s represent my city with a nice uplifting drama about homophobia and AIDS…
Fury – 2/20 6:15 AM – Very good film about mob justice and the consequences of it.
Inherit the Wind – 2/20 12:00 PM – Stanley Kramer’s fictionalization of the Scopes Monkey Trial is disappointingly still relevant years later and excellently handled.
12 Angry Men – 2/20 6:15 PM – So what if it doesn’t hold up legally, it is still a fantastic piece of legal fiction both in the way in generates the tensions of its hot, confined space which grows progressively more so as it goes on, but also in the way it so adeptly develops the characters, the prejudices involved, and the failings of our justice system which only one man who cares can seek to change.
8 1/2 – 2/21 8:00 PM – It’s in the Top 10 of both Sight and Sound polls, beloved as Federico Fellini’s masterpiece and it is a good film, but I don’t know. I don’t think it is even one of his five best and I don’t quite get the love for it.
La Strada – 2/21 10:30 PM – If you are just going to pick on Fellini of the two, I’d pick this classic (the first Best Foreign Language Film winner), about a naive young woman and a strongman.
Cool Hand Luke – 2/22 12:30 AM – Arguably Paul Newman’s definitive performance as a prisoner targeted by a cruel prison warden.
The Day of the Dolphin – 2/22 5:30 PM – By no rights is this a good movie, but it is being included for its inexplicable existence and for the joy inherent in it being an Oscar nominated film (somehow directed by Mike Nichols).
Mighty Joe Young – 2/22 – 7:30 AM – Hugely underrated follow-up to King Kong in creative team if not necessarily in tone, that I am a huge sucker for even beyond its fantastic stop motion work.
Umberto D. – 2/22 9:30 AM – I mentioned it before, but this is my pick for Vittorio De Sica’s best work, a film about an old man and his dog skimping by on his paltry earnings.
Sounder – 2/22 11:15 AM – A really well made family drama
The Caine Mutiny – 2/22 11:15 PM – Another Stanley Kramer joint about a mutiny (naturally) and yet one given more complexity than most.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – 2/23 1:30 AM – The dinner party from hell (so a dinner party), which along with Cimarron is one of two films to be nominated in every eligible category. This is the far more entertaining title.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – 2/24 1:15 AM – John Huston’s masterpiece of a Western starring Bogart, his father, and B-movie vet Tim Holt is another tension builder (there’s a lot on TCM this week) this time over a fortune of gold, and the three’s differing philosophies and levels of trust over it.
Key Largo – 2/24 3:30 AM – Final Bogart and Bacall film pairs them with Edgar G. Robinson and creatively traps the cast in one location for much of the film for maximum tension.
Holiday – 2/25 4:00 AM – Fun romantic-comedy remake starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant
It Happened One Night – 2/25 10:00 AM – Besides being one of three films to win the big five Oscar awards, it’s also a very influential romantic comedy that continues to hold up.
Libeled Lady – 2/25 12:00 PM – William Powell and Myrna Loy are always a delight together and adding Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy to this romantic comedy hardly changes that fact.
The Public Enemy – 2/25 8:45 AM – The original James Cagney mobster movie and the one that made him a star.
Little Caesar – 2/25 8:00 PM – Pairs well with Edward G. Robinson’s quick moving, breakout crime film.
Citizen Kane – 2/25 11:15 PM – It’s hard for the film to escape its reputation as “The Greatest Film Ever Made” especially when it isn’t even Welles’ best and so much of what made it great is in the influence, but it still holds up as a classic work in spite of all the weighty expectations and a few flaws which is impressive in its own right. Still, do try to manage your own going in.
Glory – 2/26 3:15 AM – If you look past the scumminess of focusing the movie on the white man of the story (Edward Zwick never being great in that or numerous other departments), there’s still a great story to be told here from its Black cast (especially Oscar nominee Denzel), and it is really well shot to compensate for Matthew Broderick’s terrible casting and focus.
Honorable Mentions – A River Runs Through It, Captains Courageous, Three Colors: Red, A Star is Born (1937), and Here Comes Mr. Jordan
ALL TCM FEATURES ON HIATUS DURING THE MONTH
Sights and Sounds from the Critics Top 250
None Again This Week
The Week in Movie Reviews
– WTF ASIA 43: Saving My Hubby (2002)
– Movie Review: Isn’t It Romantic (2019)
– Movie Reviews: Cold War (Zimna wojna) (2018)
– Millennial Malaise 06: Chungking Express
– Movie Reviews: Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
– Movie Reviews: Alita: Battle Angel
– Movie Reviews: The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)
– Movie Review – Reign Of The Supermen
– Awash In The Stream – The Breaker Upperers
– BnB Shame #9: Transformers: The Movie (1986)
– Hallmark Bonus: Love, Romance & Chocolate Recap/Review
– Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-Action Edition. Treasure Island
– Movie Reviews: Oscar Nominated Shorts – Documentary (2019)
What have you been watching and what did you think of it?