Black History Month: Icons
Feb 1 – 28
Image: Malcolm X, at VIFF Centre
“Cinema is the language of our dreams,” James Baldwin wrote in The Devil Finds Work (1976). That is both the movies’ magnetic attraction, and the reason they are a distorting mirror, consciously or subconsciously designed to preserve and perpetuate the not-so-innocent lies America needs to tell itself. Often, of course, those lies are predicated on white supremacist and phallocentric fears and fantasies. As he put it, “no one makes his escape personality black.”
If that was true in 1976, things do look differently in 2023.
Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor, Prince, Jamie Foxx, Samuel L Jackson, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman… This month we celebrate these Icons of American Cinema, brilliant actors all, men and women who have picked up the torch blazed by Sidney Poitier in the 1950s and 60s to become role models for subsequent generations, dispelling stereotypes, transcending reverse-stereotypes, conferring compassion and empathy, as all great actors do.
Our Black History Month: Icons series begins with Spike Lee’s epic biography of Malcolm X, one of Denzel Washington’s definitive roles (Feb 1 & 2) and also includes Poitier in Norman Jewison’s Academy Award-winning In the Heat of the Night (Feb 5), Star Wars duo Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (the Black baseball movie you didn’t know you needed – Feb 12), a double helping of Prince in his prime for Valentine’s Day (Under the Cherry Moon and Purple Rain, Feb 14), Tarantino’s slave-avenger shoot-em-up Django Unchained (Feb 17), Viola Davis in Steve McQueen’s gripping crime saga, Widows (Feb 19) and it’s capped off with the game-changing Black comic book blockbuster, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (Feb 28).
In an indelible role, Denzel Washington give us a layered, compassionate, conflicted man who finds the strength in Islam to transcend his demons and confront the inequity and racism in America head-on. Spike Lee gives this biopic epic treatment.
Sidney Poitier in an indelible role a Philadelphia police detective Virgil Tibbs, pulled in as a murder suspect when changing trains in Mississippi. He allies with bigoted local sheriff (Rod Steiger) to solve the case.
This boisterous comedy about a breakaway barnstorming Black baseball team in the 1930s should be better known. It's an entertaining gloss on one enterprising ball player's resourceful response to segregated leagues, with Star Wars' Billy Dee Williams.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate this thing called Prince. Purple Rain is everything you could want from a rock film, and more - it's sexy, sassy, slick and it captures the young Prince in the raw.
Prince is Christopher Tracy, a gigolo on the French Riviera, determined to seduce $50 million heiress Kristin Scott Thomas (!). The pop star's directorial debut is a quirky, fun throwback to old school Hollywood glamour, with knobs on.
In his best role, Jamie Foxx is the title character, a slave who becomes allied with a German dentist who hires him to shoot white folks. Tarantino's potent blend of blaxploitation and spaghetti western is provocative, funny and full of fire.
Viola Davis is immense in Steve McQueen's gripping crime story. When her husband dies in a shootout with Chicago PD, Veronica inherits his $2 million debt to a local mobster, and a notebook with plans to rip-off the vault of a local politico.
The most important movie Marvel has made to date, this Black blockbuster is a triumph for Creed director Ryan Coogler and star Chadwick Boseman. After the death of his father, T'Challa returns to the African nation of Wakanda to take his place as king.