In Black Experience, we present four powerful film from early attempts to put black actors in the centre of the narrative, to the black is beautiful movement and black directors driving the discourse and responses to race politics and being black in contemporary America.  

The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones was the film that established Paul Robeson (1898-1976) as a screen star, the first African-American leading man in mainstream movies. Neither Robeson nor playwright Eugene O’Neill were strangers to the breaking of artistic barriers, although Robeson ultimately paid a great price for it. The play was a surreal tale of a man succumbing to temptation and greed. He escapes to an island in the West Indies (Haiti) and in two years makes himself “Emperor” of the place.

The releasing the film in New York was a triumph but the rest of the country was problematic. In the South, the response was virulent, sparking a number of lynchings in the weeks before it opened. For many decades, it was impossible to see this 1933 film even on television, because of the level of repression of Robeson by a racist FBI and Federal government. The film remained in a disjointed and dilapidated condition until its restoration in 2002.

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Wattstax

The legendary “black Woodstock,” now restored and digitally remixed is a documentary of the epochal 1972 concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum mounted by black record label Stax to help rebuild Watts after the ’65 riots. Featuring incendiary performances by Isaac Hayes, Albert King, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers, the Emotions, the Bar-Kays and other greats of soul, R&B and gospel it is intercut throughout with biting humour from a then little-known Richard Pryor.

Wattstax is more than a concert film as it incorporates footage from the ’65 riots, images of clapboard churches and abandoned storefronts and interactions among neighbours, friends and activists. It captures a heady moment in mid-1970s, “black-is-beautiful” African-American culture when Los Angeles’s black community came together just seven years after the Watts riots to celebrate its survival and a renewed hope in its future.

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Cotton Comes to Harlem

Cotton Comes to Harlem spearheaded the blaxploitation revolution in the early 1970s: These were mainstream studio films, a number of which were made by black filmmakers, intended primarily for an urban black audience. Ossie Davis, an actor known for his roles in films as diverse as Malcolm X and Bubba Ho-Tep, directed and co-wrote the script for this slam-bang action-comedy, adapting a prime slice of pulp material from expatriate novelist Chester Himes. What’s more, Cotton Comes to Harlem emphasizes, more emphatically even than standard blaxploitation fare, the tumult of race relations in the era of the civil rights movement, and also deals frankly with internecine tensions within the black community in Harlem. As the film’s Back-to-Africa evangelist might inquire: “Is that black enough for you?” Slant Magazinef

 

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Do the Right Thing

In this masterful film Spike Lee has fused political message, gripping drama and community comedy with finesse. Whether or not you agree with his provocative views (and late in the movie some of his conclusions could upset the most open-minded of viewers), there’s no doubt about the film’s sheer power and taut originality. It stars Ossie Davis, director of Cotton Comes to Harlem.

‘This is radical filmmaking at its best; it’ll have you arguing — and laughing — all the way home’.  Washington Post.

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