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.


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