Monday, January 16, 2012

Four Movies for Martin Luther King Day

Here in United States it is Martin Luther King Day. The day is observed every third Monday in January in honour of the birth of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Since the day was first observed in 1986, it has become a day when Americans reflect not only on the legacy of  Dr. King, but also on the Civil Rights Movement to which he contributed.

Given both the significance and the solemnity of the day, it can be difficult to choose movies fitting it. It seems to me that, given the paucity of motion pictures covering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the Civil Rights Movement, movies that touch upon the African American experience in the United States would be fitting for Martin Luther King Day. Sadly, given that even today most portrayals of African Americans in Hollywood film can be grossly stereotypical, even this can be rather difficult task. That having been said, I can think of at least four films that would fit Martin Luther King Day and treat African Americans with dignity.

Glory (1989): While there have many movies about the American Civil War,  I can only think of one that deals with African Americans in that war. That is Glory. Glory was based on the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the Union's first official United States Army united comprised almost entirely of African Americans. While Glory does stray from history at times, it is for the most part an accurate portrayal of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and one that treats the black soldiers as human beings rather than stereotypes. Indeed, the most impressive performances are given by Morgan Freeman as John Rawlins and Denzel Washington as Trip. Perhaps the movie's only flaw is that it is largely told from the point of view of the unit's white commanding officer, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). In my humble opinion Glory would have been more interesting if it had been told from the point of view of one of the soldiers.

A Raisin in the Sun (1961): Sadly, realistic portrayals of African American families are still very rare today. This is one of the very few produced in the past sixty years. Based on the 1958 play of the same name, A Raisin in the Sun, follows several weeks in the lives of the Youngers, an African American family living in Chicago sometime between the end of World War II and the end of the Fifties. As the Younger family come into conflict over their various hopes and dreams, the average American can see a bit of themselves and their own families in the Youngers. Not only does A Raisin in the Sun benefit from a sterling script, but from a fantastic cast including Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, and a young Louis Gossett.

Sounder (1972):  Based on the classic young adult book of the same name, Sounder numbers among my favourite movies of all time. Much of this is because it has an excellent script as well a great cast including Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, and Kevin Hooks. That having been said, it is also because it is one of the few honest examples of life in the rural South (albeit at an earlier time), let alone one of the few honest examples of an African American family in rural South.  While my father was never imprisoned, I could easily identify with the Morgan family and their lives. While I obviously have a bit more in common with the Morgan family than, say, Yankees living in a big city, Sounder is so well executed and so very human that I think anyone watching the film can see a bit of themselves in the Morgans. Indeed, I can guarantee anyone who has ever had a dog as a pet will love the film, as it is one of the best films to portray the relationship between a family (the Morgans) and their dog (Sounder).

The Tuskegee Airmen (1995):  The Tuskegee Airmen is not a feature film, but a television movie produced by HBO. I include it here because it is so well made that it feels more like a feature film. The Tuskegee Airmen deals with the legendary 332nd Fighter Group, the first fighter group composed entirely of African Americans, during World War II. While like Glory the movie does depart to a degree from history, for the most part The Tuskegee Airmen is a fairly accurate portrayal of the lives of the pioneer airmen. The movie benefits from a very good script, as well as excellent performances from Laurence Fishburne (although he was  a bit old for the part) and Cuba Gooding Jr. The movie also benefits from having the feel of an old time, flag waving war movie while at the same time recognising the realities of the time (such as racism).

Here I should note that this Friday a big budget feature film (produced by George Lucas, nonetheless), based on the exploits of the 332nd Fighter Group, Red Tails, is being released this Friday.

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