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Posts Tagged ‘African-Americans in Cinema’

Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

In this deeply trying time in our nation’s struggle for basic human rights, this is a key film.

Spike Lee is, of course, the most important and influential African-American filmmaker working today, and one of the most important and influential filmmakers working today, period. In 1997, Spike Lee created a brilliant and moving documentary on the horrific September 15, 1963 murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lee had first intended to create a dramatic reproduction of the incident, but decided that would not be the best approach. He shifted to a documentary. Once he secured funding, Lee went to Birmingham with a small skeleton film crew. He wanted to have the families be as comfortable as possible. Ellen Kuras was the Director of Photography and Sam Pollard the producer/editor.

Kuras said of her desire to shoot 4 Little Girls, ‘I was really interested because my background is in political documentaries . . .I always felt that one of the reasons that I had got into filmmaking was that I wanted to use my craft to be able to say something about the human condition, however I could, in my own humble way. For me this was an opportunity to make a small contribution.’

The film covered the events in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 related to civil rights demonstrations and the movement to end racial discrimination in local stores and facilities. In 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King arrived in the town to help with their strategy.

People of the community met at the 16th Street Baptist Church while organizing their events. The demonstrations were covered by national media, and the use by police of police dogs and pressured water from hoses on young people shocked the nation. So many demonstrators were arrested that the jail was filled.

A local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan placed bombs at the Baptist Church and set them off on Sunday morning 15 September 1963. Four young girls were killed in the explosion. The deaths provoked national outrage, and that summer the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The film ends with trial and conviction of Robert Edward Chambliss in 1977 as the main person responsible for bombing. The film also delves into black churches being set on fire in Birmingham in 1993, giving the impression that while progress has been made, there are some aspects that still haven’t changed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.”

No, it’s very clear that “some aspects still haven’t changed” at all, as the brutal massacre of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 has more than aptly proved.

The subsequent campaign to remove the confederate flag from various public places, license plates, and the ban on such merchandise by Sears, Walmart, Amazon and Ebay – something that should have happened a long time ago – is one outcome of this senseless series of murders, but the cost of creating such change is much too high. Nine people were killed, including the senior pastor and state senator from South Carolina, Clementa C. Pinckney.

As I write this, these events are still unfolding, and it’s too early to tell if any real positive change will occur as a result of this senseless violence. I know that it has profoundly shaken me,  as well as all people of conscience, in the United States and around the world, and I can only be heartened that perhaps something will come out of this terrible tragedy that will move us all to a better place.

In the meantime, let us remember that the struggle for basic human rights for all goes on day after day, year in and year out, and is never really full accomplished. All we can do is continue to move towards the light, and a better tomorrow.

Spike Lee’s brilliant movie is a reminder of that struggle; if you have not seen it, do so now.

Ruby Dee – Actor and Activist – Dies at 91

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Here’s a superb tribute to the great Ruby Dee by Sarah Halzack of The Washington Post.

As Ms. Halzack wrote, in part, “Ruby Dee, an actress who defied segregation-era stereotypes by landing lead roles in movies and on Broadway while maintaining a second high-profile career as a civil rights advocate, including emceeing the 1963 March on Washington, died June 11 at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91. In a career spanning seven decades, Ms. Dee was known for a quietly commanding presence opposite powerful leading men, including Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones.

As a young woman, she won acclaim as a chauffeur’s steadfast wife in the Broadway and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun, starring Poitier, and then earned an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as the mother of a drug kingpin played by Washington in American Gangster (2007).

In 1965, Ms. Dee became the first black actress to perform lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., playing Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear. Moreover, critics consistently praised Ms. Dee’s ability to make the most demanding roles seem effortless. Off-Broadway in 1970, in Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena, she was commended for her searing portrayal of a South African woman beaten down by society and physically abused by her husband, played by Jones.

Ms. Dee’s marriage to actor and playwright Ossie Davis was widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s most enduring and romantic, lasting 56 years, until his death in 2005. The couple’s careers were deeply intertwined as they co-starred in films such as Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991), both directed by Spike Lee; collaborated on the comedic play Purlie Victorious, which Davis wrote and in which Ms. Dee starred on Broadway in 1961; and even partnered on a memoir, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.

When Ms. Dee and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, it was said that they opened ‘many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America’s multicultural humanity.’ In 2008, Ms. Dee described the epitaph to Jet magazine: ‘If I leave any thought behind, it is that. We were in this thing together, so let’s love each other right now. Let’s make sense of things right now. Let’s make it count somehow right now, because we are in this thing together.’”

Ruby Dee – one of the most unforgettable actors in the history of the cinema.

The Black Film Center/Archive – Richard E. Norman Collection

Monday, April 20th, 2015

More essential films saved from destruction.

As The Indiana University – Bloomington Newsroom reports, “The Black Film Center/Archive will produce a new finding aid for the collection of Richard E. Norman, a pioneer in development of films for African-American audiences. Project staff, working in partnership with IU Libraries Digital Collections Services, will enhance this online resource with over 20,000 digitized items from the archive.

‘The Norman Collection constitutes a unique resource for the study of the formation of American cinema in general and the history of race films in particular,’ said Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive and a professor of American studies and of communication and culture in The Media School. ‘Arguably, of no less importance to both histories as the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. and Micheaux Picture Corp. are, this grant ensures the preservation and access of our Norman holdings for current and future generations of researchers, film historians and the public, as it will be to the teaching mission of Indiana University.’

In the early 1900s, Norman, a southern-born white filmmaker, was among a small group of so-called race filmmakers who set out to produce black-oriented pictures to counteract the racist caricatures that had dominated cinema from its inception.

Norman began his filmmaking career in the Midwest before relocating his Norman Film Studios to Jacksonville, Fla., where from 1919 to 1928 he produced silent feature films featuring leading black actors and actresses. He cast his actors in positive roles such as a banker, businessman and cowboy, and not in demeaning roles often given to African Americans by Hollywood. In his 1926 feature, The Flying Ace, he notably depicted an African-American pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces — an impossible career in reality for a black man until 1940.

Apart from short fragments, all but one of Norman’s films are now lost, making the collection at IU even more important. His lone surviving film, “The Flying Ace,” was restored by the Library of Congress in 2010 and screened at IU in 2013 as part of the ‘Regeneration in Digital Contexts: Early Black Film’ conference.

Norman’s archive at IU — an extensive collection of his personal and professional correspondence, detailed theatrical distribution records, original shooting scripts and other records — is among the most important resources for the study of early African-American film and movie-going culture from 1912 to 1954. Norman ceased film production with the advent of the sound era, but he remained active in the motion picture industry as a distributor and owner of theaters.

‘Since the 2013 publication of Barbara Tepa Lupack’s scholarly biography on Norman, we’ve seen a surge of research interest in Norman’s collection from scholars internationally,’ said Brian Graney, archivist of the Black Film Center/Archive and principal investigator on the Norman project. ‘This support from NEH will greatly increase the discoverability of Norman’s records and make them readily available as digital resources for remote research and new forms of scholarship on African-American movie-going.’

The collection was donated by Norman’s son, Capt. Richard E. Norman Jr., to the Black Film Center/Archive under its founding director Phyllis Klotman, emeritus professor of African American and African diaspora studies, who died late last month.”

Fascinating history – read more by clicking here, or on the image above.

Classic Cinema: The Cool World

Monday, August 1st, 2011

The Cool World (1964) is a pioneering independent American fiction film shot on location in New York for less than $100,000, using then-unknown actors, and directed by experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who was one of the foremost members of the “underground” film movement that dominated American low-budget filmmaking in the early to mid 1960s. In the cast are the actors Antonio Fargas, Carl Lee and Clarence Williams III, among others, who all went on to lengthy careers in the cinema; for many working on the film, this was their first brush with commercial filmmaking.

Based on a novel by Warren Miller, the film was produced by Frederick Wiseman, who later became a major figure as a documentarian with such films as Titicut Follies (1967), which documented deplorable conditions in a Massachusetts mental hospital. Shirley Clarke had made a series of evocative short films earlier in her career, particularly the gorgeous In Paris Parks (1954), which documents children and couples during one day in Paris, and Bridges Go Round (1959), a brief abstract film that turned a series of Manhattan bridges into an extended merry-go-round of light and activity. In 1960, her short film Skyscraper, documenting the construction of a building on Fifth Avenue, received an Academy Award nomination.

Moving into features, Clarke directed The Connection (1961), based on the play by Jack Gelber, dealing with a group of jazz musician junkies anxiously waiting for a heroin delivery in their New York loft, which was hailed a new breakthrough for realism on the screen. This led to The Cool World, which dealt with black gangs in Harlem in an equally forthright manner, creating a gritty and often brutal film, although Clarke’s poetic streak often comes out in some of the film’s visuals, particularly in the dreamy main title sequence, in which the credits roll past abstracted scenes of trees in the mean streets of the city.

Though the film was sold sensationally as an exploitation feature (“HOOKER! FUZZ! JUNK! RUMBLE!” the film’s poster screamed), The Cool World is at base absolutely serious, and presents an unflinching look at the social conditions endured by African-Americans in the early 1960s. The film centers around a 15 year old gang member, Duke (Hampton Clanton), who wants desperately to buy a gun from the older criminal Priest (Carl Lee), so that Duke can become the leader of his gang, and lead his fellow gang bangers in a series of “rumbles” (gang fights).

Clarke shoots The Cool World in cinema verité fashion, so that it almost seems like a documentary, and the stark black and white imagery of cinematographer Baird Bryant, coupled with a cool jazz score by Mal Waldron, makes the world of Duke and his gang seem real and immediate. As an example of the independent film movement in America, The Cool World is a real, personal landmark. Clarke’s direction is unsentimental and tough, as fits the subject matter, offering the viewer a new level of realism in American filmmaking.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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