Cooley High (1975): A classic of black cinema, the film is as much an audio feast as well as visual; classic 1960’s hits populate the soundtrack, and Aretha Franklin even appears to throw a group of rowdy teenagers out of her neighborhood diner. One of Boyz 2 Men’s most phenomenal hits is the remake of “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” the background music to the film’s iconic tearjerker finale. The Fugees “Killing Me Softly” music video recreates Cooley High’s hilarious rumble scene in a movie theatre, a staple setting in mainstream films about teenagers from that era.
Glynn Turman plays “Preach,” a dreamy and sensitive boy from the South Side of Chicago: immersed in the reality of gang life and poverty he was born into, but reciting poetry and carrying the requisite writer’s notebook on his Chicago El train rides. Eventually, a frustrated teacher confronts Preach about his lack of effort and grade failures in comparison to his obviously brilliant mind. The teacher asks “What do you want to do with your life?” and Preach answers “I want to live forever.” Don’t all writers? Moments such as this explain why Cooley High remains an American favorite and cult classic 40 years later.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1979) It took ten years for a made-for-tv movie version of Maya Angelou’s 1969 seminal work to appear. The movie stars some of America’s most celebrated Black actors: Esther Rolle, Diahann Carroll, Madge Sinclair and Ruby Dee (who, along with Angelou, passed away in the middle of this year). Filmed in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the movie is a portrayal of Angelou’s formative years as a girl interrupted by sexual abuse followed by many years of famous silence before books rescued her.
The film is as much a retro tribute to Black life in the Jim Crow South as an autobiography of a future American icon’s life. One of the first mainstream American films to feature a large, near all-black ensemble, the movie contributed to Maya Angelou’s burgeoning success at the time and turned her into a crossover household name.
Losing Ground (1982) Thanks to Milestone Films and its commitment to preserving historical cinema for future generations, this first Black female “womanist” cinema classic has a new audience 30 years after it was first released. Shot in Rockland County, New York, from writer and director Kathleen Collins, the story follows a Black female intellectual and her painter husband through marital troubles art helps them through. Just 6 years after its release and its unfortunately fast fade from the public eye, Collins passed away from cancer.
Seret Scott plays Sara Rogers, a cerebral woman frustrated with not only her marriage, but blanket misunderstandings of her work as a philosopher, intellectual, thinker and researcher. The film features several touching and charming “A Room of One’s Own” moments, as Sara often mysteriously retreats to sit alone with her notes and notebooks in a manner leading most around her to label her negatively. Her character explores the subjugation of women and escape routes to empowerment. Losing Ground’s non-racial narrative and presentation of black bodies as mere subjects in life with their humanity unburdened by race was perhaps too radical for audiences at the time. Kathleen Collins’ daughter Nina Collins set out restoration efforts for the original negatives of the film, leading to a resurgence of interest in it today.
Malcolm X (1992) Spike Lee’s 1992 film is a Black Power Redux where Black Panthers Co-Founder Bobby Seale, South African President Nelson Mandela and American activist Rev. Al Sharpton all make cameo appearances to help tell the winding, complex, triumphant but ultimately tragic story of race man Malcolm X. Audiences remember the handsome, charismatic and strong-willed former orphan and convict as much for his fiery speeches and writings as for his tireless activist against White racism. Today, many of his writings are studied in political science, history, black studies and even theology classrooms.
Starring Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, in a role the harshest critics of racist Hollywood say should have earned his Best Actor Oscar, the biopic’s ensemble cast is a who’s who of Black Hollywood: Angela Bassett, Lonette McKee, Delroy Lindo and Ossie Davis are among performers in the three hour drama.
Poetic Justice (1993) Recently, Flavorwire published a Top 50 Films About Writers List. I thought it was quite good–until a writer friend asked “Where’s this one?” and led me to ask “Hey, where’s that one?” Our omitted choices had one thing in common: black main characters. Poetic Justice was the only black-cast film included, most likely because of the phenomenal crossover likeability (if not pop cultural over-glorification) of megastars Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. Despite whatever biases or perhaps ignorances led to such an imbalanced representation of people of color on the overall list, Poetic Justice certainly ranks high in films about writers–of any race.
It’s not just the presence of two of the greatest hip-hop rhymers and most famous side hustle poet who ever lived (Q-Tip and Tupac, respectively), or the cameos from the Last Poets and Maya Angelou, which makes Poetic Justice one of the best films ever made about being a black person with linguistic gifts. It is also Janet Jackson reading Maya Angelou’s poetry, paraded as the work of South Central L.A.s “Justice”: your average 1990’s “around the way girl” who cracks gum and jokes in a hair salon by day, but grieves her painful losses alone by night (audiences know Justice has lost her grandmother and boyfriend at the top of the film). After an invitation to travel with her girlfriend (the exuberant and one-of-a-kind Regina King), Justice joins a flirtatious postal clerk named Lucky (Shakur) on an odyssey which forces her to get over her pains.
The film’s honesty and authenticity extends out into portrayal of a typical Black family reunion so large and unorganized Justice and Lucky are able to fit in as relatives to strangers, and a direct addressing of the black female “Golddigger” stereotype which sprang up during that time. This tender, touching John Singleton movie is a portrait of poetry’s saving grace for a huge population of America’s black and poor who have no dreams of stardom, fame, fortune or notoriety from the practice. Instead, writing and poetry are the cheapest survival tools they can find. Poetic Justice depicts the pot liquor of the spoken word and poetry revivals of the time it was made, and shows how the most extraordinary artistry and potential is often buried in places no one would ever think to come looking for it.