Ladies First: Black Women At The Movies

 

African-American women have

made some major impact in the history of Hollywood. In some cases the

characters are more memorable than the actresses themselves, and vice-versa. To kick off Women’s History Month, we found a few

movies that made an impression across the board through the actresses, their characters and the stories.

 

Imitation of Life (1934 & 1959)

 

Imitation of Life debuted in 1934 as the tale of two

very different women who share a friendship in hard times, and a daughter’s

shame of her own mother’s skin color. Bea (Claudette Colbert) is a wealthy

white widow with the idea to package the pancake recipe of her Black

housekeeper, Delilah (Louise Beavers). Their pancake flour is a huge success

with Delilah as an “Aunt Jemima” type character as the logo. Despite the

fortune earned, humble Delilah turns down the opportunity to share in any of

the profits. 

 

Delilah’s very light-skinned daughter, Peola, resents

having to suffer the indignities that come with being Black, and decides to

pass for white.

When she leaves home, Peola tells her mother, “Even if you see

me on the street, pass me by.” Delilah dies of a broken heart, and Peola shows

up at her elaborate funeral, begging her forgiveness. 

 

The even more popular 1959 remake stars Lana Turner as

a struggling actress and Juanita Moore as her friend and housekeeper Annie

Johnson. There is still the story of the daughter who passes for white, Sarah

Jane (Susan Kohner), who is cruel to her sick mother – at one point making her

pretend to be her former nanny in front of her white friends.

 

The remake was a huge success at the box office, garnering

Juanita Moore nominations in 1960 for a Best Actress Oscar and a Best

Supporting Actress Golden Globe, and Susan Kohner (who is actually of Mexican/Czech descent) the Oscar nomination for Best

Supporting Actress. Neither won their respective categories. A clip from the

film is featured in 8 Mile, as it is being watched by B. Rabbit’s

mother.

 

 

Carmen Jones (1954)

 

The musical epic Carmen Jones featured an all-Black cast

that included Dorothy Dandridge in her signature role as the proud Carmen; along

with Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, and Diahann Carroll in her film debut. Free-spirited

Carmen Jones is on a relentless mission for O.P.P. as she chases army officer

Joe (Belafonte), who is engaged to another woman.

 

The film won the Golden Globe

for Best Picture-Musical or Comedy, and Dorothy Dandridge was the first Black

woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, however, she did not

win.

 

Halle Berry, who portrayed Dandridge

in the 1999 biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, won the first Best

Actress Oscar by a Black woman for Monster’s Ball. The film was adapted

for television in 2001 as Carmen: A Hip Hopera starring Beyoncé Knowles

and Mekhi Phifer.

 

The Diana Ross Trilogy: Lady

Sings the Blues (1972); Mahogany (1975); The Wiz (1978)

 

“You want my arm fall off?” was

a classic line delivered by Billy Dee Williams to Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues. The film is based

on blues singer Billie Holiday, who had incredible success yet suffered from

drug use.

The film was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best

Actress, but won none. Meanwhile, the soundtrack was a Billboard #1 album.

 

Mahogany was Ross’ second foray into film, cast once again with

Billy Dee. Directed by Berry Gordy, the film tells the tale of Tracy (aka

Mahogany), an aspiring fashion designer who becomes a model and then a fashion

designer again. Along the way she encounters a number of people who want to

latch on to her rising star – and doesn’t anyone on the come-up know about that

problem?

 

The song “Theme to Mahogany

(Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” was #1 on the Billboard Top 100, and was

covered by Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, and in part, Slick Rick.

 

The Wiz was Diana’s final theatrical feature. The Black

version of the 1939 feature film, The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz was starts

off in Harlem with a timid Dorothy who had “never been south of 125th

Street.” After her experiences in Oz, Dorothy blossoms into a worldly woman.

 

The film is full of memorable

characters and quotable lines, but earned less than half of what it took to

make it at the box office. Regardless, the film is one of Black America’s most

beloved musicals and is #29 on Entertainment Weekly’s list of the

50 Top Cult Movies. The Wiz was nominated for three Academy Awards,

winner of none.

 

The Pam Grier Trilogy: Coffy (1973); Foxy Brown (1974); Sheba, Baby

(1975):

 

Pam Grier was the baddest

b***h way before Trina, portraying a vigilante who was “a whole lot of woman.”

In her three most memorable films, Pam is the Queen of the Blaxploitation era.

The ‘70s were great for Black film in that there were a ton of them made;

however, Pam Grier’s characters were some of the first to portray women as

fearless.

 

She was almost a super

heroine, and her characters were so iconic to women that MS. Magazine made her their first African-American cover girl in

1975.

 

Blessed with a body that is

the definition of brick house, Pam Grier is still an inspiration to a Hip-Hop

culture that grew up watching her take down “jive turkeys.” Quentin Tarantino

cast Pam as the kickass lead in his 1997 film Jackie Brown, which was more or less an ode to her previous work.

We can currently see her in the Showtime series The L Word as Kit Porter, another strong character that is

overcoming a number of personal demons. 

 

Sparkle

(1976)

 

They had to have the

hottest girl group name, Sister & the Sisters. Lonette McKee (Sister) and

Irene Cara (Sparkle) shine in this cult classic of triumph and tragedy, as the

beautiful Sister ruins her life with drugs, and shy Sparkle goes on to become a

superstar.

 

While it wasn’t the most

memorable film, Sparkle was a sweet movie with a banging soundtrack that

was repackaged as one of Aretha Franklin’s most successful albums, with Curtis

Mayfield on production. The success of Sparkle opened the door for more

musicals, including the Broadway production of Dreamgirls.

 

Sparkle was to be remade in 2001 starring Aaliyah, who died

just before filming was set to begin. Ashanti and Raven-Symone were both later

considered for the lead role; however, at this point there are no plans to

produce a Sparkle remake.

 

The Color Purple (1985)

 

The tearjerker of all

tearjerkers, The Color Purple was adapted from the Alice Walker novel of

the same name. From the moth-to-butterfly transformation of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), to Sofia’s (Oprah Winfrey)

spirit-breaking encounters and eventual solace, to the resurrection of

happiness to Shug (Margaret Avery), the film tells an amazing story with strong emphasis on

transformations of the heart and soul.

 

A box office smash, it was

nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but didn’t win any of them. To this day, the

loss at The Oscars is shrouded in controversy. Thanks to Oprah Winfrey, The

Color Purple has been remade into a Broadway musical which is currently

touring around the country to sold-out audiences.

 

Set It Off (1996)

 

As the most charismatic

crooks you’d ever want to meet, Stony, Frankie, Cleo and T.T. (played by Jada

Pinkett, Vivica Fox, Queen Latifah and Kimberly Elise respectively) gave Thelma

& Louise a run for their money. As F. Gary Gray’s sophomore effort after Friday,

the movie was a tremendous success. With one of the best shoot-out scenes in

movie history, no one will forget how Queen Latifah’s Cleo went out with a

bang.

 

Set It Off is a cult classic, and the rooftop scene with the

girls talking amongst each other has been parodied in numerous music videos.

The soundtrack was also a banger with classics like “Don’t Let Go” by En Vogue

and “Missing You” by Brandy, Tamia, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan.

 

Monster’s Ball (2001)

 

The most controversial film

on this list, Monster’s Ball was hated by many African-Americans because

of its unique plot and controversial sex scene. The film centered on the

relationship of Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry), the widow of a Black man (Sean

“Diddy” Combs) who had been executed for murder, and the overtly racist corrections

officer Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) who participated in that execution.

 

As a grieving widow trying to

find some new purpose, Leticia falls for Hank unwittingly, as he does not

disclose his role in her husband’s execution. Even then, the relationship is

less about love, and more about confusion and misdirected emotions.

 

Monster’s Ball

was nominated for several awards in 2002, including two Oscars for Best

Original Screenplay and Best Actress, which Halle Berry became the first Black

woman in history to win. The movie also featured appearances by Mos Def and

Heath Ledger.

[Editor’s Note: Many of the movie clips we found were either too graphic or poor quality, so this clip of the 2001 Ebert and Roeper review of Monster’s Ball gives a good breakdown]

 

Dreamgirls (2006)

 

The feature film adaptation

of the award winning Broadway musical, Dreamgirls broke box office

records when it debuted on Christmas Day in 2006. Based on the rise of The

Supremes, the story centers on a girl group managed by ruthless record label

owner Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx).

 

As the relationship between headstrong

Effie (Jennifer Hudson), ambitious Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) and sweet Lorrell

(Anika Noni Rose) unfolds, it also discreetly addresses issues like color and

size preference in the entertainment industry. Of course, a happy ending to an emotional story never hurts.

 

The film was nominated for

numerous awards, and Jennifer Hudson won Best Supporting Actress, became one of

only eight actresses who won an Academy Award in their big screen debut.

Related Stories