Notes on an African-American Canon in Cinema: On Sidewalk Stories, Daughters of the Dust, Eve’s Bayou and other films

By Daniel Garrett

There were men of African ancestry who traveled with early explorers to America, but we do not know very much about them—they remain obscure characters in stories about Africans and African-Americans that are yet to be widely told, remembered, and shared with generations to come.  The most significant and best-known African introduction to American life began centuries ago with the enslavement of Africans whose bodies were exploited and moral existence slandered and spirits circumscribed.  It was impossible to know who these people really were when they existed primarily to be used for the purposes of others.  Consequently, the drive for freedom and social power for Africans and African-Americans have involved not only economic and political rights, but the pursuit of education and cultural access and expression.  African-Americans have wanted to claim and define their own public images in every art—literature, paintings, sculpture, dance, music, film, videos, television.  The presentation of African-Americans in the legendary moving picture Birth of a Nation—which presented blacks as both culturally ambitious and personally barbarous—was a continuation of old stereotypes that led to actual violence against blacks.  People—blacks and whites—protested the film, inspiring its director D. W. Griffith to make Intolerance, an anti-prejudice reaction to his own film.  The African-American image has yet to cease to be controversial.

The actors who have given depth, given intelligence, pride, and strength, to the African-American image are men such as Paul Robeson, Canada Lee, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, James Earl Jones, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Howard Rollins, Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, Anthony Mackie, and Derek Luke; and the women who have created images of beauty, dignity, emotion, and thoughtful sense include Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Cicely Tyson, Diana Ross, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Halle Berry, and Sanaa Lathan.  For a long time, film production depended on identifying a single personality around which the film could be built, an exceptional personality or talent, a particular commercial power, but, increasingly, the story being told has become important in itself.  More and more films have dealt with history, modern life, relationships, work, spirituality, and the arts, subjects that have an intrinsic value.  It is possible to begin to discuss an African-American canon, work that embodies lasting significance, work that embodies principles and standards.

There are, perhaps surprisingly, many films to consider.  Some of the significant films featuring or by African-Americans, or about African-American subjects and themes, are Ali, Amistad, Antwone Fisher, Beloved, The Best Man, Bird, Blade, The Bodyguard, Boomerang, The Brother from Another Planet, Blue Collar, Bulworth, The Caveman’s Valentine, Chameleon Street, Claudine, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Daughters of the Dust, Deep Cover, Devil in a Blue Dress, Edge of the City, Enemy of the State, Eve’s Bayou, The Five Heartbeats, For Colored Girls, Foreign Student, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, Glory, Greased Lightning, Gridlock’d, Hav Plenty, The Hurricane, In the Heat of the Night, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Jumping the Broom, Killer of Sheep, The Landlord, Lady Sings the Blues, Losing Isaiah, Losing Ground, Love and Basketball, Love Jones, Mahogany, Malcolm X, Matewan, Mississippi Masala, Mo’ Better Blues, New Jack City, Nightjohn, Nothing But a Man, One Night Stand, Othello, The Preacher’s Wife, A Rage in Harlem, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, The Red Violin, Ricochet, Sankofa, She’s Gotta Have It, Sidewalk Stories, A Soldier’s Story, Soul Food, Sounder, Stormy Weather, Tap, To Sleep with Anger, Trading Places, Training Day, The Visit, Which Way is Up, White Man’s Burden, White Men Can’t Jump, and The Wiz.

Consider: now if a film viewer wants to screen a film with the enslavement of Africans as its subject, he or she does not have to see Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind: there are good movies—comprehensive, imaginative, intelligent—available such as Amistad, Beloved, Nightjohn, and SankofaAmistad follows the capture and shipment of Africans to America, their battle to free themselves, and a court case established to decide their fate.  Beloved, based on Toni Morrison’s novel, focuses on a character who runs from the plantation on which she and her children have been kept, and begins to kill her children when she thinks her family is about to be recaptured, believing death is better than slavery: only one child, a baby, dies, and haunts the family; and it is a film about responsibility and memory.  Nightjohn is built around the drive for literacy and the brutal punishment dealt by white authorities when that ambition was discovered among the enslaved (whipping, fingers chopped off).  Sankofa is about a black American model who does a photo shoot in Africa, at a site where Africans were chained and shipped to America, and the woman does not imagine she has any special affinity with the place until she is transported back in time, in bondage.  These are respectable, serious, and affecting films, offering history, intelligence, and vision.  They are not merely representations of the African-American past, but of the true history of America.

If one wants to consider modern life, one can look at Antwone Fisher, Boomerang, Claudine, Eve’s Bayou, One Night Stand, Paris Blues, Sidewalk Stories, To Sleep with Anger, and A Warm December.  If one wants to examine work issues, Blue Collar and Edge of the City and Red Violin and Matewan can be screened.  The arts, including the dangerous temptations surrounding the struggle to survive as an artist, form the tableaux for Basquiat, Bird, The Five Heartbeats, Lady Sings the Blues, and Round Midnight.  Romance and sex are the focus of Love Jones and Jumping the Broom.  Spiritual heritage is a theme of Daughters of the Dust.  It is now an exciting prospect to think about films featuring or by African-Americans, or focused on African-American subjects and themes, and their relation to standards of originality, creativity, depth, insight, formal structure, beauty, elegance, accessibility, durability, use as models, translatability, and entertainment value.   

Films that have been made by and star African-Americans that are worthy of being in a canon include: Antwone Fisher, Boomerang, Chameleon Street, Daughters of the Dust, Devil in a Blue Dress, Eve’s Bayou, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, The Great Debaters, Jumping the Broom, Losing Ground, Sankofa, and Sidewalk Stories.

Antwone Fisher is Denzel Washington’s directorial treatment of a true story, an abused young man’s reconciliation with his past and his spiritual redemption, a dramatic, good-looking, well-organized film that exemplifies how pain can be used for insight rather than justification of destruction.  Boomerang is smart and somewhat bawdy comedy about a successful, womanizing executive who is treated by a woman the same way he has treated women, directed by the Hudlin brothers.  Wendell Harris’s Chameleon Street focuses on a character who is frustrated by his social circumstances and begins to pretend to be what he wants to be, even going so far as to perform a surgical procedure when he performs without training or license as a doctor (he is admired for his skill with a scalpel); an hilarious film.  Julie Dash’s gorgeous and unique Daughters of the Dust, a view of a community that still has cultural connections to Africa and inherited values, though there are fissures caused by skin color and sex, with much of the narrative that of an unborn child.  Devil in a Blue Dress is a crime mystery, Eve’s Bayou a glamorous southern family story, Ganja and Hess a modern vampire tale, and Get on the Bus about men on a bus to a political gathering in the nation’s capitol.  Obviously these films span a wide range of subjects, defying or transcending expectation.  Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, about a poet-activist teacher and his effect on a group of college debaters, juggles several narratives, as does the romantic comedy Jumping the Broom, which faces the clash of social class and values as a couple prepare for their wedding and the film has a mood similar to that of a ebullient French film.  Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground features a woman philosophy professor and her more instinctive artist husband, with the comforts and the temptations in their lives opening up new film space for African-American existence.  Haile Gerima’s Sankofa is tough, refusing to look away from history or present-day indulgences that confuse amnesia and superficiality with victory.  Sidewalk Stories, by Charles Lane, is about a homeless artist who begins to take care of a baby, and he himself begins to be cared for by a young, professional woman, a Chaplinesque (silent) story of class, deprivation, and compassionate friendship.  Those films are the kind of work upon which a great tradition of work can be built, embodying and inspiring quality.

Three of the films that I find of signal importance are Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories (1989), Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1992), and Eve’s Bayou (1997) by Kasi Lemmons.  In an age when delicacy and individuality were being sacrificed for blunt assertion and tribal aesthetics, as embodied by hip-hop in music and gang stories in film, Charles Lane produced a short film—a little over ninety minutes—that was black-and-white and silent but for its music score by Marc Marder, a film about a beleaguered, gifted and practical Manhattan artist and his compassionate, delighted response to a lost child, a film requiring a certain sensitivity and imagination to perceive its full value.  The artist in the film, one of the men who draw pictures of pedestrians on a downtown avenue, like many artists, can no longer afford to live in the city, but he is refusing to leave.  He considers finding an apartment and the rent is far beyond his income; and he stays in a squat.  (I can recall a group of bohemian artists who did the same thing in the East Village, about the time the film was produced.  They slept upstairs in an old building and had an art gallery and community meeting space that hosted discussions and rock shows downstairs.)  Lane has taken a figure that could be despised, even triply despised—not only a youngish black male, but an artist, and a homeless person—and presents him with respect and sympathy; one of those presentations that comes with a certain pain but also a balm.  We see that this figure, played by Lane, whom some might disdain or fear, is valuable and vulnerable.  Yet, some of the people who share the landscape with him remain suspicious, even as they watch him taking care of a little girl.  Some people refuse to see—but we, the film viewers, have been allowed to see.  And a small miracle occurs—a small business owner, a young woman (Sandye Wilson), develops affection for the artist and invites him to visit her home.  It is an improbable but not impossible event.

It is rare that a film covers a great deal of ground in a way that is elegant, intelligent, and spiritual, but that is what Daughters of the Dust accomplishes: it is set among the Gullah people of South Carolina’s Sea Islands, and shows a genuine African-American culture, a culture of belief, habit, manners, and ritual, a culture that can be perceived in dress and food and language and medicine and religion as well as personal relationships.  Women are at the center of the film, but men are present and important too, as the family prepares to leave their island home for the mainland in the early part of the twentieth century: they are choosing the future over the past; and choosing social integration over segregation.  The older members, such as the grandmother, Nana, are closer to the past, of course: full of ideals and knowledge that the younger members are willing to compromise or abandon.  The past is likely to become the province of a scrapbook rather than part of active memory—one woman has brought a photographer to the island.  There are warning flares, though: one woman, Yellow Mary, who had been to the mainland, was betrayed into prostitution and has come back (all that yellow in her complexion going to waste, someone laments).  There is, also, a family conflict about an unborn child, who may be the child fathered by a woman’s black husband or by an unwilling and violent encounter with a white male; and the tension is great, but the film audience is allowed to hear and see glimpses of the child and knows her parentage.  The unborn child as narrator not only acknowledges how the future is an implicit part of the present, but that historians and storytellers, whether professionals or family members, do tell events of the past as if they were there.  This does not sound like an ordinary American film, nor does it appear like one.  It is full of the beauty of place and people, full of contemplation and association.  (I remember the husband of a colleague complaining about the film’s insistence on the perspective of the women and the value they gave to their traditions: he was impatient for action in conventional terms.  It is not a film for someone who wants to see the usual Hollywood fare; and luckily it, like Sidewalk Stories and Eve’s Bayou, received critical praise and found a small, solid, diverse audience.)  There is no other American film like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.

Two glamorous women walking out in the sun, remembering the wonder of their own youth: that is one of the sensuous and seductive scenes in Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou.  Imagine finding beauty and grace and pleasure in your own life—and knowing enough to remember and relish it.  That is one of the many incidental pleasures in the film, set in Louisiana, about a young girl’s troubling discovery of life’s complexity—of sex and sexual infidelity, when she sees her father embracing not his wife but another woman.  The little girl, Eve (Jurnee Smollett), is angry, with an instinctive sense of violation and injustice; and she does something in response that puts her doctor father Louis (Sam Jackson) in danger.  The girl’s mother is Roz, played by Lynn Whitfield, and the girl’s aunt is Mozelle, a woman with powers of intuition but usually with bad luck regarding men, played by Debbi Morgan; and they are the two beautiful woman walking in the sun, laughing—but their laughter cannot last.  There is too much in the world, and in love, to threaten that easy comfort.  Eve has a sister, Cisely (Meagan Good), who is growing up, becoming a young woman; and there is a scene when she seems to want to be attractive for her father, something that is not wise for either of them.  It is one of the things that suggest how wild a force sexuality is—but it is the father’s response to another man’s wife that is most explosive.  Another aspect of the story has to do with spiritual power used for good or for evil; an embodiment of human perception, intention, and will, but also of other forces, forces beyond reason, that cannot be controlled once set free: the little girl goes to a voodoo worker (Diahann Carroll) for a spell with which to fix her father.  Is what happens a tragedy?  It is certainly a bitter lesson, a conclusion to a beautiful film: in youth we learn both ideals and disillusionment, and then we discover reality, and our characters and lives are often shaped by how we come accept that.

The three films Sidewalk Stories, Daughters of the Dust, and Eve’s Bayou present a more complex view of African-Americans than is usually seen in popular culture, but that is not merely an ethnic achievement—that is also a fulfillment of the purpose of most forms of art: to reveal the human; to tell us what we do not know or have forgotten.  Their directors did not proceed by accident or instinct, but by thought and plan, as interviews with them and their colleagues document (luckily, they have been available for interviews).  Moving pictures such as the Hudlin brothers’ Boomerang and Salim Akil’s Jumping the Broom, two glossy movies with elements of comedy and drama, initially may not seem as original or as visionary as a work such as Sidewalk Stories, Daughters of the Dust, or Eve’s Bayou, but when one thinks of how hard it has been for African-Americans to achieve comparable social status, when one considers how much African-American lives have been charged with pain and rage, the comfortable style and success of the characters in both Boomerang and Jumping the Broom are not a capitulation to the status quo, but a modification of it, a revision of common expectations and results.  What’s more, the characters in both films have not moved passed understandable and important human dilemmas.  In both film stories, professional goals remain, as does coming to terms with—and overcoming—personal limitations: in the former, a man must grow out of his selfishness and gender assumptions, and also develop more integrity in how he pursues business; and in the latter, young people of different classes must accept each other’s families, blemishes and bluntness and all—and must remain open to the fact that they, as lovers, as man and wife, may disagree about what to think or do.

As well, it is important to not dismiss automatically, without investigation, African-American stories told by writers or directors who are not black: some of them have been positively significant.  Amistad was directed by Steven Spielberg, and Beloved by Jonathan Demme—and, of course, many great actors such as Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington have done some of their best work with directors who were not African-American.  However, years ago the writer James Baldwin wrote something that remains a fact: black actors have smuggled the truth of their experience into certain films, sometimes with the knowledge and approval of their collaborators, sometimes not.

The great James Baldwin wrote about his boyhood and adult responses to American film in The Devil Finds Work, which contained comment on the work of Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Sidney Poitier.  Baldwin spoke of how one character played by Davis was inclined to betray her moral compromise to a black character if it meant she would not have to take public legal responsibility for a crime, the kind of confession that powerless blacks had been subjected to by powerful whites, sometimes appealing for mercy, sometimes making threats.  Baldwin also described Sidney Poitier’s character in one film giving up freedom for a white prison buddy as being a sop to liberal hopes for brotherhood and forgiveness rather than an honest reflection of any reality.  Baldwin unmasked the false messages and the rare admissions of truth in mainstream American film.  Some of the other African-American writers who have commented about film are Donald Bogle, Mark Reid, Armond White, Bell Hooks, Michele Wallace, and Ed Guerrero.  I recall Donald Bogle discussing his book Brown Sugar, on great black women performers, talking about the failure of the movie Mahogany to fully account for Diana Ross’s dynamic energy.  Where does that ambition and self-belief come from?  Yet, that performance and film remains one of the better presentations of an African-American woman’s drive for professional accomplishment, noting as it does the discipline and initiative that ambition requires and also the discouragement some people face when they want something that others do not expect them to have or want: Ross’s model-designer remarks on wanting to forget that her new lover is one more person advising her to compromise her goals.  Mark Reid contributed attractive and useful essays to various publications on black film and a few years ago produced a fine history of the subject, Black Lenses, Black Voices.  Armond White, a writer for The City Sun and New York Press and author of The Resistance, has found creative, deep, unique works to herald, both mainstream and independent, though he is broadly known for what he rejects.  Bell Hooks had a special interest not only in gender and sexuality but in cultural mixtures, the intersections where cultures met, in Yearning and Black Looks and Reel to Real (yes, Reel to Real), which included contemporary film commentary.  Michele Wallace, often a panelist in New York discussions of the arts and society, brought an interest in visual art and continental theory to her explorations of film (Dark Designs and Visual Culture).  Ed Guerrero expressed various historical and political concerns, especially regarding issues of identity and social representation, in his film studies, particularly in the book, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film.  These writers as critics, among others, each have something to recommend them, but with the exception of Bogle, Reid, and White there are frequently more negative conclusions that affirmations.  It is simply not clear from much of what has been published that there are enough good or great films to constitute a significant body of work, a canon worth revering: and that is largely because political ideology rather than aesthetics or significant philosophy has been the standard.  So much time has been spent on complaints and repudiations regarding problems involved in being African-American, and the difficulties of producing African-American art, that genuine accomplishment rarely has received its full due.  It is time for the exploration and celebration of a canon of African-American films, films such as Antwone Fisher, Boomerang, Chameleon Street, Daughters of the Dust, Devil in a Blue Dress, Eve’s Bayou, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, The Great Debaters, Jumping the Broom, Losing Ground, Sankofa, and Sidewalk Stories.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House.  Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  Garrett has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.

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