by Karen Good, BlackAmericaWeb.com
When director Julie Dash was seeking distribution funding for her debut film “Daughters of the Dust,” a producer told her, “Nobody wants to be a black woman for two hours.” Hmmph.
The recent release of Tyler Perry’s film adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf” has reinvigorated discussion about black women in film, how we are seen and who tells our stories. The ensemble cast features some of the best actresses of our time – who also happen to have had the great good fortune of being born black and female. We exist. And our stories, like Shange’s love, is too delicate/beautiful/sanctified/magic/saturday nite/complicated/music to have thrown back in our faces.
In honor of our image, here are a few films every black woman should see, lest your card be revoked.
EVE’S BAYOU (1997)
Ten-year-old Eve Batiste (played by an exceptional Jurnee Smollett) tells the story about her Louisiana family and the summer of 1962 — the year, she says in the opening minutes, she killed her father. Its outstanding cast includes Samuel L. Jackson as father Louis Batiste, along with Lynn Whitfield, Diahann Carroll, Megan Good and Debbi Morgan as Mozelle Batiste Delacroix, Eve’s widowed aunt who has the gift of sight. Directorial debut by actress Kasi Lemmons.
Why watch? Plain ol’ awesome and layered dramatic storytelling.
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)
Director Julie Dash wanted to tell a story about African Americans at the turn of the century, particularly the Gullah people from the South Carolina Sea Islands, once a slave port. Narrated by an unborn daughter, “Daughters” is the story of the Pezant family and their gathering before some of the family relocates up North.
Why watch? Cinematographer Arthur Jafa and his eye for striking beauty, including beautiful black women in white; the exploration of Gullah culture and honoring of ancestors. DANCEHALL QUEEN (1997)
A Jamaican cult classic! Street vendor and single mother Marcia is ekeing out a living in Kingston, Jamaica, and has become dependent upon financial help from Larry, a shady businessman. When “Uncle Larry” begins making advances at one of her daughters and the support systems Marcia’s been leaning on disappear, she finds an unexpected solution to her woes in the dancehall.
Why watch? Pure, empowering, wind-up-your-waist fun.
Why watch? In addition to Carroll’s Oscar-nominated performance and brief JEJ nudity, there’s the soundtrack: Music and lyrics composed and produced by Curtis Mayfield and performed by Gladys Knight and The Pips. It gets no better.
Diana Ross plays Tracy Chambers, an aspiring designer from Chicago’s South side, who works in a department store and assists her underdog politician boyfriend (played by Billy Dee Williams). After being discovered by a top fashion photographer (Anthony Perkins), Tracey – now renamed Mahogany – travels to Rome to embark on a modeling career, where she must ultimately decide between the glamorous life and love.
Why watch? The killer fashion, which fits Ross to a T; the recurring “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)?” and creepy Perkins getting the beat down by Billy Dee.
FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE/WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF (1982)
This PBS-televised production of Ntozake Shange’s play featuring then up-and-coming actresses Alfre Woodard and Lynn Whitfield. It was also directed by Oz Scott, who helmed the Broadway production.
Why watch? Other than the sweet, powerful poetry and performances? Shange herself stars, reading to her real-life daughter.
SET IT OFF (1996)
Four young blackgirls from South Central Los Angeles – childhood friends and co-workers in an office cleaning company – each find themselves at breaking points in their lives and decide to rob a bank.
Why watch? Powerful performances from Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox and Kimberly Elise. Subplot: Sisterhood.
AMERICAN VIOLET (2008)
In a impressive, breakthrough performance, actress Nicole Beharie portrays Dee Roberts, a single mother who refuses to take a plea bargain and fights to clear her name after being wrongly accused of dealing drugs in a small Texas town. “Violet” highlights systemic injustice and racism in the nation’s drug policy. As an ACLU spokesman explained in the film, “Drug task forces use military tactics to terrorize poor people. Meanwhile, federal monies go to the counties who convict the most people, and plea bargains are aggressively pushed to hasten those convictions.”
Why watch? It’s based on the true story of Regina Kelly (reginakelly.com). And it bears repeating: Beharie’s performance is not to be missed. Alfre Woodard as Roberts’ mother is a real bonus.
The Senegalese adaptation of Bizet’s tragic opera.
Why watch? The sheer power and beauty of Senegal’s striking, black Karmen-Gei; traditional drumming and choreography, including the dance, sabar.
SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986)
Why watch? One, it’s Spike Lee’s first feature film. Two, this quote by Nola, darling: “It’s really about control, my body, my mind,” says Darling. “Who was going to own it? Them? Or me? I’m not a one-man woman. Bottom line.” Werk.
Set in Burkina Faso, a woman shelters four little girls who do not want to be circumcised by evoking moolaade or “magical protection.”
Why watch? Director Osumane Sembene’s commitment to telling stories that represent the struggle and liberation of African women. (See also, “Faat Kine” and “Black Girl”)
BLACK ORPHEUS/ORFEU NEGRO (1959)
The retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set in Rio de Janerio during Carnival. In Portuguese with subtitles.
Why watch? In addition to it being an awesome adaptation? It is, hands down, one of the most cinematically beautiful films you will ever see. Ever. Actress Marpessa Dawn (who is actually from Pittsburgh) is stunning, and iconic bossa nova composers Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa created the soundtrack.
HONORABLE MENTION: DOCUMENTARIES
BEAH: A BLACK WOMAN SPEAKS (2003)
The directorial debut by actress Lisa Gay Hamilton, documenting and celebrating the life of actress, poet and activist Beah Richards (“Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” and “Beloved”). Riveting and deeply honest, Richards succumbs to lung cancer by the film’s end.
EYES OF THE RAINBOW (1997)
On May 2, 1972, Black Liberation Army member JoAnne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, was pulled over by the New Jersey State Police on the turnpike, shot twice and charged with the murder of a police officer. After serving six and a half years of a 26- to 33-year prison sentence, she escaped a maximum-security prison in 1979 and has since been living in political asylum in Cuba. Director Gloria Rolando explores the life of the liberated political prisoner. If you think it’s not relevant today, consider this: In 2005, the Justice Department placed a $1,000,000 bounty for the return of Assata Shakur to the United States. You can find download the movie for free at HandsOffAssata.net.
Women — drug dealers, rappers, prostitutes, porn stars, mothers and daughters — talk street life from a female perspective. In the film, Mary J. Blige defines a gangstress: “A survivor. You do whatever it is that you need to do to make sure that you live to the next day. Or to make sure that you can take care of your children or take care of your family,” she says. “All my ladies out there, love yourself, keep your head up … and stay up because it’s crowded at the bottom.”
NINA SIMONE, LA LEGENDE (1992)
The incredible life of Nina Simone. Features interviews with her family and friends, and even includes footage of Nina returning to her childhood home in North Carolina.
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