Black History Month is in full effect, which is as good a time as any to re-acquaint oneself withsome of the great black men and women who have helped shape this country, many of which have been given the full Hollywood treatment. The books should always be your go-to source for the understand the lives of a Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali, but movies are easier to digest than 700 or 800-page books. Below are a few biopics that go down the easiest, while still having some meat on their bones.
“Malcolm X” Dir. Spike Lee
Of course, right? Still, the obvious answer is sometimes the best one, and few screen
biographies have come close to the sweep and nuance of Spike Lee’s 1992 epic. A work that
honors the remarkable man at its center by seeing him clearly, at each stage of his life, so that we might come to understand Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, Malcolm of the Nation of Islam, and the Malcolm who continued to evolve right up until his murder. Rarely has a major historical figure and the society that birthed him been so richly examined and evoked, and rarer still has it been done with such empathy and compassion. Never let a person tell you Lee is an angry filmmaker. His films show a touching fairness, both to his subject and its viewers. All who come to this film will walk away from it with a better understanding of not only Malcolm X, but themselves as well. Securing the film’s place in the pantheon is Denzel Washington’s greatest performance, one of the greatest in modern cinema.
“Talk to Me” Dir. Kasi Lemmons
The history of black radio personalities in America has been sorely neglected on both the big and small screen. The director of “Eve’s Bayou” likely noticed this as well, and so for her third film, she told the story of D.C. radio jockey Ralph “Petey” Greene (played by Don Cheadle), who became a seminal figure in both radio entertainment and the civil rights movement. Like Malcolm X, his was another life that looked ready to bottom out in prison before he stepped through the doors of reinvention and into the history books. The film is enriched by wonderful supporting performances from Taraji P. Henson as his volatile girlfriend, and Chiwetel Ejiofer as the program director who develops a contentious relationship with him. Educational and entertaining, as the best historical dramas are, with a killer soundtrack, which is only fitting.
“Lady Sings the Blues” Dir. Sidney J. Furie
Casting like this always looks like a risky yet lazy stunt on paper: get an icon to play another icon. Yet sometimes the stunt pays off in resounding fashion, particularly when the performer digs this deeply into her craft, coming out with something that made us look at both her and her subject in a new light. That was the effect Diana Ross’s revelatory, Oscar-nominated performance as Billie Holiday had for many critics in this fine biopic. See also for Holiday’s music, which grants the film’s cliches newfound life and soul.
“Bird” Dir. Clint Eastwood
A great biopic of a jazz musician has yet to be made (fingers crossed for Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis film), but this sprawling and thoughtful portrait of Charlie Parker from Clint Eastwood, who grew up listening to and loving the jazz greats, touches the texture and flavor of jazz, and it benefits from a big, complex and somber performance from Forrest Whitaker and a great soundtrack that is almost reason enough for the film’s existence. It is a film made of music, and of the moods and feelings therein, and it wisely doesn’t explain Parker’s genius. It let’s the performance, and those horns, speak for themselves.
“Selma” Dir. Ava DuVernay
it’s not too late to see DuVernay’s powerful drama on the big screen where it belongs. Long after the Oscars have come and gone, this stirring dramatization of the Selma to Montgomery marches will endure as a testament to the profound bravery and strength of the men and women who led the charge against oppression and injustice. The wisdom in the film is we understand that Martin Luther King Jr.’s bravery was no bigger than the others by his side, and it appeals to our best selves by reminding us that this bravery lay in us all. I’d be lying if watching “Selma” doesn’t make you feel like the moral future of America is at stake (which it is). It’s heavy. It has to be. DuVernay is repossessing and electrifying history here. She shifts our perspectives away from Hollywood’s whitewashing and white saviors towards a street-level viewpoint of racial progress — beautifully lensed black faces front and center— and in doing so, you feel the ground shift beneath you.