The 100 Best Black Movies Ever [Documentary Review]

shawn edwards Shawn Edwards2

“What is a black movie?” asks Fox News critic Shawn Edwards in his documentary film, The 100 Best Black Movies Ever.

His answers:

  • “A movie that is written, produced and/or directed by’ a black person.”
  • “A movie with a black person in the lead role.”
  • “A movie about the black experience even if not written, produced and/or directed by someone black.”

Not only is the above criterion for a ‘black movie’ slightly misleading, it is also, in some respects, quite offensive. According to its logic Blade 2, I Am Legend, and Men In Black are all indeed, ‘black movies’.

Now one might happen to deem these films as black, but I strongly doubt the major Hollywood studios that funded and own the rights to them do.  I also doubt that the mass global audiences who have bought into these films and/or the merchandise they relate to, have regarded them so.

Furthermore, if a film is owned by a major white studio/corporation, stars an all white cast, but is directed, written, and produced by a black person, is it still a ‘black movie’?

Ok rant finished.  My point is that The 100 Best Black Movies Ever generates quite a muddle about how to categorise the very thing it’s supposed to be listing.

Despite this, The 100 B.B.M.E begins on a high note, with a reference to Public Enemy’s classic “Burn Hollywood Burn” which briefly discusses the racial stereotypes that dominated early Hollywood when blacks were often portrayed merely as servants, maids, butlers, slaves and whores.

Seminal lyrist Big Daddy Kane’s contribution to the song is without doubt the most notable; “Let’s make our own movies like Spike Lee, ‘cause the roles being offered don’t strike me. It’s nothing that the black man can use to earn. Burn Hollywood burn,” he says on the last four bars of his much celebrated verse.

In this sense the song is a cry for black empowerment through film.  And almost as if to suggest that Kane’s words (uttered in 1989) were somehow prophetic, the documentary moves on to a montage of some of todays most successful black actors as they name and discuss their favourite ‘black movies’, at least three of which have won Academy Awards for leading or supporting roles (Jamie Fox, Jenifer Hudson and Denzel Washington).  Thus The 100 B.B.M.E’s point seems to be that blacks have experienced some level of empowerment through film. Well at least in Hollywood, or at least in America and at least in theory.

That said the documentary does little to address the notion of blacks funding films and owning them.  Interestingly, one of the few instances in which this has occurred (‘Sweet Sweetbacks Badasss Song’ in 1971 which was produced, written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles and in a sense pioneered the Blaxsploitation film genre) is hardly mentioned.  Although the film does appear at number 44 of the list.

Other notable addition to The 100 B.B.M.E are earlier films such Hallelujah [1929] and The Exile [1931]. Movies which it seemed most at the screening had never heard of and thus made for informative viewing.

There were also moments of exuberant nostalgia at the mere mention of classics, such as, In The Heat of the Night [1967], Do The Right Thing [1989] and The Colour Purple [1985], which one black actor referred to as “our Wizard of Oz [1939] because we’ve all seen it at least once”. Ironically, as the voice over declares, The Colour Purple lost to Out of Africa [1985, set in Kenya] in the award for best picture at the Oscars in 1985 (the film featured a large number of black extras, although non were cast in a leading role).

Irrespective of the brief pleasures the above constituents add to The 100 B.B.M.E, the film never quite recovers from its initial confusion regarding its criteria for a ‘black movie’.  It seems rather clear that films made outside of the USA do not adhere to the model.

Some of the most significant ‘black movies’ (in terms of critical acclaim) from around the world do not feature on either the list or in the documentary.  Films such as Battle of Algiers [1966, Algeria], Burning an Illusion [1981, UK], La Haine [1995, France] and Bamako [2006, Mali]. Films which have addressed social and political upheavals in their realisations of the African Diaspora both globally and nationally.

Obviously these upheavals (or at least their filmic representatives) do not figure in Edward’s narrow perspective. A perspective in which blackness is clearly just commodified African Americanism.

View the trailer for The 100 Best Black Movies Ever:

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