INK: Black People on Film in the 1980s and 1990s

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011


I’m the last person who would say “you’re not ____ enough because you’ve never seen/listened to/heard of _____.”  I think that’s ridiculous, but it’s often a phrase I hear people of color use, policing the boundaries of race as they do.  In reality, our experiences as similarly raced bodies, while similar, are not the same. If I’ve learned anything as an anthropologist, it’s that culture varies greatly based on ecology, or the environment and conditions under which one is raised and socialized. For example, Black people in New York do not eat the same things as Black people in North Carolina. Neither is less Black, or more Black.  The reason for their different cultural experiences are the availability of certain items and experiences, in this case the availability of certain kinds of food.  The same can be said of all forms of culture.

After having conversations with a couple of the students that I worked with who had never experienced movies that I think offer fantastic viewing experiences, I wanted to share a few film titles with them because for most of them they were born around the time many of these films were released, or too young to remember them at all.  They literally did not have these films available.  Similarly, there are plenty of 30 and 40 year olds who have never seen some of these films. Their reasons for having not seen the films are just as worthy of note.  Some of these films were low budget and were popular only in niche markets, thus it makes sense why non-Black people never saw these films.  Some of the films were made for TV films, a popular form of distributing movies in the late 1980s and 1990s. You may not have known you’d be interested in these films, and the mini-series format makes for missing a couple sections of a movie. Additionally, people may have missed the big studio movies on the list in theaters.  How many movies have you missed in theaters in the past 10 years?  Do you remember?  There was no such thing as Netflix where you could search obscure movie titles for hours in the 1990s and renting movies wasn’t possible until Blockbuster which was founded in 1985.  Most folks didn’t have one in their neighborhood until the mid 1990s.

Kuumba (Creativity)

That said, In the Name of Kwanza, I share these films because they represent an era of Black film making that I think was absolutely creative.  What makes these films different than Tyler Perry movies, or movies like Jumping the Broom is that they weren’t always concerned about putting the most famous actors they could find in them, they also were also concerned with critique, and social commentary.  Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle critiqued the fame industry, for example.  And while plenty of them are about getting married, one is even called The Wedding, a lot of them didn’t end with marriage.

Some of the films are slightly problematic, in the sense that they may express some homophobia, sexism, ablism, and what I like about being able to watch these films with fresh eyes, is that I can appreciate them for what they were, and for the conversations that they offer; be those conversations critique, commentary, or just laughs.

In no particular order, these films remain ripe with moments that fill light and playful conversation as well as intense debate.  Enjoy.

The list

  • Boomerang (1992) –  Directed by Reginald Hudlin. Starring Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry, Robin Givens, and David Allen Greir.
  • Coming to America (1988) – Directed by John Landis. Staring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, and Shari Headly.
  • A Time to Kill (1996) – Directed by Joel Schumacher. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Matthew McConaughey.
  • Sankofa (1993) – Directed by Haile Gerima.Starring Oyafunmike Ogunlano, Afemo Omilami, Kofi Ghanaba.
  • The Josephine Baker Story (1991) – Directed by Brian Gibson.  Starring Lynn Whitfield, Rubén Blades, and David Dukes.
  • Good to Go (or Short Fuse) (1986) – Directed by Blaine Novak.  Starring Reginald Daughtery and Art Garfunkle.
  • Strictly Business (1991) — Directed by Kevin Hooks. Starring Halle Berry, Tommy Davidson, Joseph C. Phillips, and Anne-Marie Johnson.
  • Once Upon a Time… When We Were Colored (1995) – Directed by Tim Reid.  Starring Al Freeman Jr., Phylicia Rashad, and Leon.
  • Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) – Directed by Carl Franklin.  Starring Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals.
  • Original Gangstas (1996) – Directed  by Larry Cohen.  Starring Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Pam Grier
  • When We Were Kings (1996) – Directed by Leon Kast.  Starring Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, and Don King in the remarkable story of their historic “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Zaire.
  • The Golden Child (1986) – Directed by Michael Ritchie. Starring Eddie Murphy, Charles Dance, and Charlotte Lewis.
  • The Crying Game (1992) – Directed by Neil Jordan. Starring Forest Whitaker, Jaye Davidson (Ra the Sun God in the movie Stargate), and Stephen Raye.
  • Theodore Rex (1995) – Directed Jonathan R. Betuel. Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Juliet Landau.
  • Corrina, Corrina (1994) – Directed by Jesse Nelson.  Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Ray Liotta, and Tina Majorino.
  • Hollywood Shuffle (1987) – Directed by Robert Townsend. Written by Keenen Ivory Wayans and Robert Townsend. Starring Robert Townsend, Craigus R. Johnson and Helen Martin.
  • I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (1988) – Directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans. Starring Keenen Ivory Wayans, Bernie Casey and Antonio Fargas
  • The Women of Brewster’s Place (1989) – Directed by Karen Hall. Starring Oprah Winfrey, Robin Givens, Jackee Harry, Cicely Tyson, Lynn Whitfield, and Leon.
  • New Jack City (1991) – Directed by Mario Van Peebles. Starring Wesley Snipes, Ice-T and Allen Payne.
  • Posse (1993) – Directed by Mario Van Peebles. Starring Mario Van Peebles, Stephen Baldwin, Pam Grier, Salli Richardson, and Charles Lane.
  • Sarafina! (1992) – Directed by Darrell Roodt.  Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Leleti Khumalo and Miriam Makeba.
  • The Color Purple (1995) – Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Whoopie Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery, and Danny Glover.
  • Jackie Brown (1997) – Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Forster.
  • Jason’s Lyric (1994) – Directed by Doug McHenry. Starring Allen Payne, Jada Pinkett, and Bokeem Woodbine.
  • Bamboozled (2000) – Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Damon Wayans, Tommy Davidson, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Savion Glover.
  • Tap(1989) – Directed by Nick Castle. Starring Gregory Hines, Suzzanne Douglas, Savion Glover, and Sammy Davis Jr.
  • The Negotiator (1998) – Directed by F. Gary Gray. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey and David Morse.
  • Juice (1992) – Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson. Starring Omar Epps, Tupac Shakur, and Jermaine ‘Huggy’ Hopkins.
  • Poetic Justice (1993) – Directed by John Singleton. Starring Janet Jackson, Tupac Shakur, and Regina King.
  • Hoodlum (1997) – Directed by Bill Duke. Starring Laurence Fishburne, Cicely Tyson, Tim Roth, and Vanessa Williams.
  • Set it Off (1996) – Directed by F. Gary Gray. Starring Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, (introducing) Kimberly Elise.
  • Waiting to Exhale (1995) – Directed by Forest Whitaker. Starring Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Lela Rochon, and Loretta Devine.
  • Harlem Nights (1989) – Directed by Eddie Murphy. Starring Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Della Reese, Charlie Murphy, and Redd Foxx.
  • The Meteor Man (1993) – Directed by Robert Townsend.  Starring Robert Townsend, Marla Gibbs and Eddie Griffin.
  • A Low Down Dirty Shame (1994) – Directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans. Starring Keenen Ivory Wayans, Jada Pinkett, Charles S. Dutton, and Salli Richardson.
  • The Last Dragon (1985) – Directed by Michael Schultz. Starring Taimak, Vanity, and Christopher Murney.
  • Bebe’s Kids (1992) – Directed by Bruce W. Smith.  Starring Faizon Love, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Wayne Collins Jr.
  • The Wiz (1978) – Directed by Sidney Lumet. Starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Nipsey Russell.
  • Out of Darkness (1994) – Directed by Larry Elikan.  Starring Diana Ross as a woman battling schizophrenia.

I left plenty of things off (some on purpose).  This is not an exhaustive list of every film ever made in the 1980s and 1990s that had Black people in it.  If you have films you’d like to add, use the comment box and tell us why you think it’s important.


The WNBA, Maya Moore, and the Jordan Brand

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

“I am thrilled to welcome Maya Moore into the Jordan Brand,” said Michael Jordan in a recent press release. “Not only has Maya proven to be a prolific winner on the court, but her hunger and determination to make an impact off the court makes her a valuable addition to the Jordan family. We look forward to working with Maya as she carries her success to the next level.”

Maya Moore, the number one overall draft pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft, will play with the Minnesota Lynx alongside Simone Augustus, the 2006 Rookie of the Year who suffered a season ending knee injury last year.  Without Augustus, the Lynx had fewer scoring options and in a league where players can go off for 30 points at a time, the Lynx struggled to keep up.  This year however, Maya Moore joins the squad and Augustus returns.  The duo will have the support of seasoned women’s basketball players, including Candice Wiggins, Lindsey Whalen, and Monica Wright.  There’s no doubt that the Lynx will be the team you probably can’t beat this season.

Then again…

Most people, the average person, perhaps yourself, can’t name 5 teams in the WNBA and there’s only 12.  I find it fascinating that people know Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, and some know Tina Charles, but have no idea that they can log in to and watch every WNBA game this season or that they can pay about $20 to see their favorite stars in person when they come to D.C. or Atlanta, or New Jersey.  They don’t know that there have been equally (if not more) deserving players before Maya Moore worthy of a Jordan deal like Angel McCoughtry, Simone Augustus, Lauren Jackson, Swin Cash, Tina Thompson, Lisa Leslie.  Moore is joining a league of extraordinary talent.  The WNBA is where the best female basketball players in the world come to play for 4 months after playing full seasons abroad in Russia, Western Europe, China, and Australia.   They don’t come to the U.S. play for the money, and they also don’t come for the recognition because they almost never receive it unless it’s on the butt end of a joke.  They play because they love the game.

Women’s collegiate and professional sports go largely untelevised, are almost never discussed seriously on ESPN’s Sports Center, or any sports analyst newscast.  In the summer, it’s about Major League Baseball and the upcoming NFL season.  No one is reporting on the WNBA or it’s trade rumors, player movements, off-season injuries, stats, or MVP race.  I think the real issue is not that no cares, it’s because the wrong people care, and the right people don’t.  Who do you imagine to be the average women’s basketball fan?  Straight men don’t generally show support for women’s sports, but when powerful ones do big things happen.  Maya Moore is the perfect example.

President Obama brought his daughter Malia to a Mystics game last year.  He also had a basketball game at the White House and invited his favorite basketball players over for a game one of whom was Maya Moore.   During this year’s NCAA Tournament President Obama shared his picks for the men’s and women’s bracket.  As he wrote in his ballot for the women’s bracket, he shared a story about Maya Moore picking the pocket of Dwayne Wade at the game he had at the White House.  A few months later, Maya gets a call from Michael Jordan.

I’ve followed the league for 15 years and I’ve seen great players get airtime.  People who weren’t fans of women’s basketball would know the names: Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoops, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, and even Nikki Blue.  But that wouldn’t bring people to games, and that didn’t keep the WNBA on television or expand it’s the viewership significantly.  The Houston Comets folded a few years after winning the first 3 WNBA championships.

I hope that Maya Moore’s name recognition (among men) might bring some attention to the league, to women in professional sports, to a league that has grown and changed in the last 15 years from one where I was happy if they just made it up the floor on them rusty knees, to a game where you’re constantly asking “how did she do that?”  But I’m not convinced she’ll single handedly change the way (mostly men) view women’s professional basketball.  They’ll respect her, but not the sport.  There needs to be substantive changes in the way that women who play sports are treated, they way that people think about them, and Maya Moore can’t do that alone.

That said

Maya has big shoes to fill, those Jordans, and it will be exciting to watch her this summer as she plays against the best female basketball players in the world in the WNBA.  They will be gunning for her.  Could she do what Candace Parker did in 2008 and win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same year?   Let’s watch and find out.

If you’re really interested in getting to know the WNBA, look here for updates.  I’ll keep tabs on Maya Moore’s progress, and other WNBA athletes this summer and link you to other bloggers sharing great WNBA content!

Best Comedy I’ve Seen in ___ Years: Bridesmaids

Friday, May 2oth, 2011

Grade: A+


A comedy with real Oscar potential, I think Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, hit the nail on the head with this one and their box office numbers prove it.  The #2 movie in the country, second only to the kid friendly comic book hero movie, Thor. I tend not to be optimistic when it comes to major changes in Hollywood, but what I hope this movie demonstrates is that women can write good, profitable movies and lead the cast of good, profitable movies.


Bridesmaids is the story of a woman who learns that stepping in the way of someone else’s happiness doesn’t make you happy.  A fun, sophisticated story of a grown woman growing up and learning to get out of her own way.   And while her way might not look like her best friend’s, it is still a way that can lead to being happy.

Well written and perfectly casted, Kristen Wiig lead a brilliant cast and as one Feministing blogger noted, she does it with a kind of “Lucille Ball humor” that is animated and lively.

From the first scene to the very last, I was laugh-crying: the kind of laugh that forces tears out of your tear ducts.  It was like that.  This is a movie that anyone with the capacity to cry and laugh at the same time can enjoy.

Go see it. Stop reading this. You should be purchasing your tickets online to see this movie tonight, and if you saw it already you should be pre-ordering it from Amazon right now.

Scandal: Kerry Washington on Your T.V., Weekly


Kerry Washington will star as Olivia Pope in a new ABC TV show called “Scandal.”  “Scandal” is written by Shonda Rhimes, an African American screenwriter known for her work: “Private Practice” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”  Set in Washington, D.C. Olivia Pope is a crisis manager protecting the public image of political and private elites in times of their personal and professional crises.  Pope runs a private practice, but finds herself having to sort through the bones of her past while managing the crises of her staff who struggle to take care of their own personal demons.

Kerry Washington should look right at home in a show set in the Nation’s Capital as a graduate of the George Washington University.  Sitting on the Board of Trustees of her alma marter, she continues to spend time in D.C. and at GW.

I’m hoping Hulu can pick this up.

Less than Brief Reviews: Madea’s Big Happy Family and Jumping the Broom

Monday, May 16th, 2011

I’ve chosen to do these reviews together since Loretta Devine and a similar message, carried both films.

Average Grade: C-/C+


  • These movies were average. I’ve seen better films with Black actors in them. I’ve seen better films by Black film makers.  I know we can do better.
  • Why was Loretta Devine, a Houston, Texas native cast as a mother from Brooklyn in Jumping the Broom? Someone should have caught that. And if she and all her relatives moved to Brooklyn from somewhere else, that should have been made clear.
  • I absolutely adored the Teyanna Taylor, who played Sabrina in Madea’s Big Happy Family. I especially loved the way she chewed her gum and yelled “Byrrrraaaaaaaaaaaannnn.”  Fantastic. Thank god for her and the other nuggets of disconnected Madea-comedy, because there was so much melodrama in this film, you needed something to remind you that life isn’t always this deep.   I mean, this drama was so thick you couldn’t even get a big tooth comb through it.
  • Both movies were way too long. I could have easily shaved off 20 minutes from each. You don’t need 10 comic relief scenes. The best comedy is woven in throughout the telling of the story.


The messages for both Madea’s Big Happy Family and Jumping the Broom are fairly straightforward: family secrets are not good for anyone. If you’re caring for your sister, aunt, daughter, or niece’s child as your own, please tell the kid. The kid will be fine. It’s much better than having a family secret that could throw the kid into a temporary abyss of not knowing who “they really are”. Women who only have material requirements for the men they get with will likely be unsuccessful with finding a man who will take care of them. No one is asking you to lower your standards… just make the standards high in areas like “honesty,” “maturity,” “thoughtfulness,” “intelligence,” you know, things other than “has a Black card,” “has a 7 figure salary”, cause then you’ll be looking for some who actually exists.  And if you don’t, as was the case of Renee (played by Lauren London), you’ll end up with a cold lump of ice in your chest instead of a beating heart.   Third, men know better and women usually just need a strong man to put them in their place (yeah….). Lastly, “What god put together, let no man put asunder.” Divorce is for losers, and marriage is between a man and a woman as T.D. Jakes reminds us in this Jumping the Broom almost imperceptibly in his discussion about Bible readings with the soon to be married couple (right…).

Why the C-/C+

These particular film makers haven’t really conceived of new types of stories, or different messages to offer their audiences. You can look through any of Tyler Perry or T.D. Jakes films and find similar messages woven throughout. I’m not saying that either story was necessarily bad, or that I disagreed with every aspect, I just think they’re derivative, recycled, surface, and I know we have better stories to tell than of incest, angry women, paternity tests, family secrets, and marriage.  And if we want to tell those same stories: fine.  But we don’t have to use the same troupe of 1-D characters to tell these stories, and we can complicate them so much.  Add thoughtful and compelling layers.  We can do better.

Feminist Critique: Marriage and Love in Black Evangelical Christian Film

Marriage is fantastic for people who want to be in committed relationships with one person for as long as possible, but there’s little commentary on the fact that gays and lesbians aren’t allowed to do so freely.   And the gay/sissy man jokes in these films only exacerbate that very thinking.  In a world that condones the rape and murder of gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals by those claiming to be religious, which one of these mega church pastors or evangelical media moguls will stand up and say it’s wrong to discriminate, wrong to tell people what they can and can’t do with their bodies?

The tradition of jumping the broom in African American families comes from a tradition passed down by our enslaved ancestors in America who weren’t allowed to legally marry. Instead of signing papers and pronouncing the marriage in a civil ceremony recognized by the law, they literally jumped over a household broom to signify their union. Because they weren’t white, they were not considered human. Therefore, they weren’t moral and rational human beings who could make decisions about their heart and had no legal ownership over their bodies, thus had no right to marry. That sounds all too familiar to the language used to argue why gays and lesbians can’t marry in the U.S. They aren’t heterosexual, therefore they are not normal human beings. Their abnormality makes them amoral, and thus, they have no right to marry.

But love is much bigger than marriage. It has been around far longer as well. Love is a feeling deep in your bones. It is so densely woven into the fabric of your being that you can’t cut it out if you tried. If you have it and if you nurture it, it will grow bigger everyday until you can’t move without feeling it in you. There is only one type of it. It’s the kind that parents have for their children. Love is what children have for their parents even after they realize that their parents are only human, and make mistakes too but did the best they could to raise them, and they are thankful and full of love just for that.  It’s the kind that those couples who’ve been together, loving one another for 50 years have. The kind that a 5 year old has for their best friend. The kind that people have for their dogs; the kind that makes them write blank checks to the vets when their dogs get sick. It’s the kind that spouses should have for one another prior to getting married. That’s what love is.

(Love doesn’t kick you underneath the table when you’re saying something he doesn’t like. That’s abuse. And I hope that folks raised a red flag when they saw that in Jumping the Broom. I think it was an epic failure of  the producers, writers, and directors. Anyone who has witnessed, been the victim/survivor of, or studied domestic violence know that that type of behavior is a precursor to a woman having her teeth knocked in. Detective Olivia Benson from Law and Order: SVU would not approve.)

In conclusion, either of these movies are best seen via Netflix, Redbox, or HBO. No need to spend $12 to see these movies in theaters if you haven’t yet. They aren’t life altering.  They were good enough, and I think that if we want to see our favorite Blackactresses and Blacktors carrying amazing films by Black film makers, then we’re going to have to demand better quality.

Otherwise we’ll continue to get movies where the actors are good, the scripts are a mess, and the stories are the same.