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 daughters
shame of her own mothers 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
Delilahs 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. Rabbits
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
Halle Berry, who portrayed Dandridge
in the 1999 biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, won the first Best
Actress Oscar by a Black woman for Monsters 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
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 doesnt anyone on the come-up know about that
The song Theme to Mahogany
(Do You Know Where Youre 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 Dianas 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 Americas most
beloved musicals and is #29 on Entertainment Weeklys 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
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 Griers characters were some of the first to portray women as
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
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.
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
While it wasnt the most
memorable film, Sparkle was a sweet movie with a banging soundtrack that
was repackaged as one of Aretha Franklins 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 Sofias (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 didnt 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 youd ever want to meet, Stony, Frankie, Cleo and T.T. (played by Jada
& Louise a run for their money. As F. Gary Grays 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 Latifahs Cleo went out with a
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 Dont Let Go by En Vogue
and Missing You by Brandy, Tamia, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan.
Monsters Ball (2001)
The most controversial film
on this list, Monsters 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 husbands execution. Even then, the relationship is
less about love, and more about confusion and misdirected emotions.
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
[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]
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.