Race-themed recommendations can be tricky, even in the context of Black History Month. We at Idiomanic proud ourselves on our diverse writing staff, but the truth is we’ve still got only one contributor who’s at least partially black. In honor of Rosa Parks, let’s have her go first.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Based on the play by Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun tells of an African American family that receives a large life insurance payment. The widow, Mama (Claudia McNeil), aims to buy a house in a nice neighbourhood, providing a comfortable home for her grandchild. The elder son, Walter (Sidney Poitier), wishes to open a liquor store, hoping it’ll lead to prosperity and security. His sister, Beneatha (Diana Sands), wants to use the sum to go to medical school. In short, each sees the money as a means to achieve his or her dreams.
The film’s title comes from Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem, which refers to “a dream deferred”, the idea that the success of jazz and black poetry throughout the nation in the 1920s did not improve race relations as many had hoped. A Raisin in the Sun uses this context to convey notions of feminine identity, masculine identity, African American identity, and what it means to have a dream in a society that doesn’t seem to accept you and relegates you to a specific station.
I’m not black. I cannot in any way claim to understand what it’s like to be black in North America. As such, Alex Haley’s Roots goes a long way to provide me with the tools to at least make an educated guess. I first picked up this book as a bored teenager not looking for enlightenment on the African American plight so much as to pass the time on a road trip. It starts with a boy getting abducted from Africa and follows his family through slavery, the civil war, and the civil rights movement with all the injustices and triumphs one would expect.
I enjoyed the story. Then I got to the last thirty pages, when we learn that the newest baby is the author himself, and the idea that this novel is a fictionalized account of a real American family hit home. It dawned on me that many black people in North America likely have a similar family history, and what I got from the book became so much more than enjoyment. Despite the controversy surrounding the veracity of Haley’s claims, Roots makes you think about the African American experience throughout the years, and that alone makes it the perfect recommendation for Black History Month.
Prom Night in Mississippi (2009)
As a video game reviewer, I find myself stumped by the topic of this contributors’ picks article. Black history games are practically non-existent (unless you count that Uncle Tom’s Cabin puzzle game I just made up), so I’m going to write about a great documentary instead: Paul Saltzman’s Prom Night in Mississippi, about the first interracial prom in Charleston, Mississippi. Prior to 2008, the small town’s high school held two senior proms every year: one for white kids and one for black kids. To put an end to “the stupidest thing he’s ever heard of”, Charleston native and famous penguin narrator Morgan Freeman offers to pay for prom night if the school agrees to make it racially integrated.
The film focuses on the reactions of the students, parents, and school authorities. Some find Freeman’s request just makes sense. Others say segregated proms aren’t racist; they’re tradition. Apparently intent on proving the very claim they so vehemently deny, outraged parents organise a whites-only prom, putting their kids, many of whom have black friends, in an awkward situation. Providing a small but insightful glimpse at the cultural evolutionary process, Prom Night in Mississippi is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
I love it when a flick does what it says on the tin. Take, for example, Drumline, which has on its poster a black teen playing drums in front of a college drumline and tells of a black teen playing drums as part of a college drumline. Even when our hero, Devon (Nick Cannon), is punished for insubordination, director Charles Stone III manages to insert a nice percussion number. This makes for a stark contrast with, say, Save the Last Dance (2001), which counts about two scenes of actual dancing and devotes the rest of its runtime to the woes of a privileged white girl dating a black guy from the ghetto. Privileged white girls have it so hard.
Drumline also differs from Save the Last Dance and other Hollywood abominations in that it doesn’t present African Americans as blacker-than-thou balls of bitterness who need help containing their rawness to ascend from the streets. Devon gets a scholarship by way of hard work, not charity. Sure, he’s got attitude, but the chip on his shoulder stems less from race than from the ego that comes with having been the best and most driven all his life. Besides, his coach (Orlando Jones) and friends are quick to set him straight. As varied in background as they are in personality, they exemplify how modern films should portray black people: as people who are black.
Also, the climactic musical number is pretty awesome. It involves drums.