Last week—August 28 to be exact—marked the 50-year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington and delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech before 250,000.
“I have a dream,” he intoned solemnly back in 1963, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
That fiery, much-sampled speech marked the peak of the American Civil Rights Movement, which culminated in Lyndon Johnson signing historic legislation upon succeeding the slain John F. Kennedy that November. Hard to believe that, a half-century later, Barack Obama, with an African father and a white mother, is now President of those same United States.
Following on the heels of “The Help,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” offers a chronicle of those years through the eyes of Forest Whitaker’s fictional Cecil Gaines, who served eight U.S. Presidents during his tenure at the White House, based on his real-life counterpart, Eugene Allen.
In fact, as can be seen this month on Streampix’s salute to Black Cinema, African-American filmmakers
have been doing their part to make sure MLK’s dream has become a reality.
Spike Lee, perhaps better known these days for a cheerleading role on his beloved N.Y. Knicks sideline, has been instrumental in forging that kind of equality since his own independently financed first 1986 feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” but it was his groundbreaking 1989 feature, “Dothe Right Thing,” with its exploration of racism in a Brooklyn neighborhood and its Public Enemy theme song, “Fight the Power,” which truly launched his career. The movie also featured such newcomers as John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, “Breaking Bad”’s notorious meth dealer Gus Fring, Rosie Perez and comics Martin Lawrence and the late Robin Harris.
Also included this month is his 1994 R&B-saturated, autobiographical tribute to his hometown, “Crooklyn,”
and the following year’s gritty adaptation of Richard Price’s policier, “Clockers.” Of particular interest is the inclusion of 1996’s “Get on the Bus,” Lee’s fictional look at participants in the Million Man March on Washington, DC, in October. 1995—so reminiscent of the one 32 years before—starring Ossie Davis, Charles Dutton and Andre Braugher.
As the L.A. version of Lee, John Singleton, who burst onto the scene with his racially charged 1991, Oscar-nominated South Central gangsta epic “Boyz n the Hood”, which helped start the acting careers of Ice Cube,
Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Nia Long and Angela Bassett, is represented with his third feature (and first as producer), 1995’s “Higher Learning.” The film is Singleton’s version of Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” following the exploits of three incoming freshmen at the fictional Columbus University, struggling to adjust to college life, including a black track star (Oscar Epps) and two white freshmen (Kristy Swanson and Michael Rapaport). The movie also included Singleton regulars Ice Cube and Laurence Fishburne.
Comic Richard Pryor was another trailblazer in bringing the African-American perspective to the
screen with his series of concert films, highlighted by 1983’s “Richard Pryor Here and Now,” part stand-up routine, part performance, which he directed himself. His 1986 autobiographical, “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling,” which he wrote, directed and starred in, is also available.
Other notable Black Cinema features include Mario Van Peebles’ 1991 gangsta flick, “New Jack City” (with Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Chris Rock, Flavor Flav and Vanessa Williams), which launched its own musical genre, and the 2002 black vampire thriller, “Queen of the Damned,” which stars the late Aaliyah, who finished the role just before her death. And, although not specifically part of the collection, but also available on Streampix, is Rob Reiner’s 1996 “Ghosts of the Mississippi,” with Alec Baldwin as a civil rights lawyer who reopens the case on the 1963 assassination of activist Medgar Evers.
From Reverend King’s “Dream” to black vampires, Streampix’s Black Cinema spotlight offers a nice overview of yet another revolution, this one in filmmaking.