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African-American Classic Movies

Influential Classics from the Early Days of American Film


African-American contributions to the world of cinema continue to grow in diversity, complexity and popularity. While some bygone performances by the likes of Sidney Poitier and Hattie McDaniel have drawn mainstream recognition that persists today, other classics showcasing African-Americans have begun to fade from memory over time. Here are six classic African-American classic movies you may not know.

1. ‘Body and Soul’ – 1925

Body and Soul Title Card
Public Domain

One of the few African-American silent films still accessible today, and actor Paul Robeson's first film. 'Body and Soul' features Robeson in dual roles as an escaped convict posing as a minister, and his saintly brother. The director, Oscar Micheaux, was the first African-American to produce a feature-length film; he encountered a host of budgetary and censorship problems that are partly to blame for this film's haphazard conclusion. Nevertheless, Robeson's screen presence and Micheaux's sheer ambition make Body and Soul worth watching.

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2. ‘Stormy Weather’ – 1943

Stormy Weather
20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox produced this musical as a love letter to African-Americans contributions to the world of entertainment. Loosely based on the life of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the film plays like a "Who's Who" of black entertainers of the 1940s, featuring performances by Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Ada Brown, and the great Lena Horne. One of the very first pictures to boast an all-black cast.

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3. 'The Great White Hope' – 1970

The Great White Hope
20th Century Fox

James Earl Jones is larger than life in this uncompromising, thinly-veiled biopic of the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World, Jack Johnson. Not unlike his eventual successor Muhammad Ali, Johnson refused to acquiesce to the often racist social mores of his time. Jones is brilliant as "Jack Jefferson," a proud and assertive black man who battles publicly (in the ring) as well as in his personal life.

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4. 'Carmen Jones' – 1954

Carmen Jones
20th Century Fox

Otto Preminger directs this Oscar Hammerstein musical that saw its star, Dorothy Dandridge, become the first black woman ever nominated for the Best Actress Oscar. An adaptation/modernization of Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” Dandridge portrays a “hot bundle” civilian who sets her sights on an engaged army officer (Harry Belafonte).

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5. 'Killer of Sheep' – 1977

Killer of Sheep
Milestone Film

In sharp contrast to the popular "blaxploitation" films of the early 70s, this superb thesis film by Charles Burnett (made while pursuing his Master’s at UCLA) depicts the everyday struggles of an African American family man living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Because of challenges securing rights to the music, it was not released in theaters until 2007. An example of independent cinema at its most moving.

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6. 'Imitation of Life' – 1959

Imitation of Life

Douglas Sirk's three-hankie melodrama is based on the novel by Fannie Hurst (which was in turn inspired by the racism she encountered while traveling the country with Zora Neale Hurston.) Two single mothers-one white (Lana Turner) and one black (Juanita Moore) both encounter heartache at the hands of their daughters. Susan Kohner was nominated for an Oscar (along with Moore, who played her mother) for her archetypical portrayal of the "tragic mulatto" who passes for white. A 1934 version of the movie starring Claudette Colbert was a commercial success but failed to leave as indelible a mark on the annals of cinematic history.

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7. 'A Raisin in the Sun' – 1961

A Raisin in the Sun

This film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed stage play finds most of the Broadway actors reprising their roles, including Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, and Ruby Dee. When the family matriarch receives a sizable insurance check after her husband’s death, each member of the household has a different agenda on how to spend it. The film adeptly explores its theme of “dreams deferred” against the backdrop of 1950s Chicago.

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