Some DVDs to enhance the observance of Black History Month

by Bruce Dancis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

4 February 2008


“PRINCE AMONG SLAVES” (PBS Home Video, $24.99, not rated, available Feb. 12): This excellent film is about a West African prince, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori, who was captured by slavers near the Atlantic coast of Africa in 1788, transported to the West Indies and then sold into slavery on a small farm in Mississippi.

Narrated by Mos Def, the film uses re-enactments, directed by Andrea Kalin and veteran actor Bill Duke, as well as contemporary art, letters, newspaper stories and diaries, to tell Abdul Rahman’s incredible true story. It’s a story that includes his marriage and raising a family while in bondage, then becoming a free man, a figure of controversy in the 1828 presidential election, and his ultimate return to his home in Africa 40 years after his enslavement.

“THE ULTIMATE BLACK HISTORY COLLECTION” (Six discs, St. Clair Vision, $24.98, not rated): The 47 programs included here range from five- to 90-minute documentaries and interviews that cover African American history from the Civil War through today.

For the most part, they focus on African American heroes from Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, sports figures like Joe Louis, pathbreaking entertainers such as Paul Robeson and W.C. Handy, and literary figures such as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

But there are also documentaries on African Americans at war, reports beginning in the 1930s on poverty and integration, rare interviews and bonus features such as King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963.

“THE LEADERS: BREAKING RACIAL BARRIERS IN THE NFL” (Warner Home Video, $19.98, not rated): Today, 65 percent of the players in the National Football League are African American, but this fine new DVD from NFL Films puts the spotlight on the African-American trailblazers - men like Fritz Pollard, who in the 1920s was both a star player and coach in the fledgling NFL before the league banned black players in 1934, and Marion Motley, Bill Willis, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who integrated pro football in 1946 - a full year before Jackie Robinson joined baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers.

The film also covers the progressive role of the upstart American Football League in the 1960s (it signed African-American players in large numbers before merging with the NFL at decade’s end) and the more recent breakthroughs by black quarterbacks and head coaches in challenging long-held prejudices.

“BLACK ATHLETES IN FILM” (St. Clair Vision, $9.98, not rated): Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis were among the greatest athletes of the 20th century, but as actors they make Jim Brown look like Denzel Washington. Still, the three low-budget movies included in this set are straightforward efforts that illustrate the obstacles they each had to overcome on their respective climbs to the top in baseball and boxing. Robinson was still in his prime when he portrayed himself in 1950’s “The Jackie Robinson Story.” The 1938 movie “Spirit of Youth” also captures Louis in his prime, as the heavyweight champ portrays a fighter named Joe Thomas whose rise resembles Louis’ own. Finally, “The Joe Louis Story,” from 1953, is a standard biopic, with Coley Wallace portraying Louis.

“MURDER IN MISSISSIPPI” (Warner Home Video, $14.97, not rated): This 1990 made-for-TV movie about the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney (Blair Underwood), Mickey Schwerner (Tom Hulce) and Andrew Goodman (Josh Charles) isn’t great, spending too much time on Schwerner’s relationship with his wife (played by Jennifer Grey) and too little on the serious issues involved. But it at least examines the voter-registration drive led by young civil rights workers in Mississippi and gives a brief history of the origins of 1964’s Freedom Summer, when hundreds of black and white college students from the North went South to teach in “freedom schools” and organize against segregation.

And the movie, directed by Roger Young, doesn’t overlook either the hesitancy, whether based on fear or cynicism, or the courage of black Mississippians to challenge the status quo or conflicts that arose among black and white activists in the struggle.


Here are other recommended films for Black History Month:

“Matewan” (1987): John Sayles wrote and directed this drama about a conflict between black and white coal miners in the 1920s.

“Daughters of the Dust” (1991): Julie Dash’s film concerns five African American women living on the sea islands near the coast of Georgia in 1902.

“Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995): Denzel Washington starred as Easy Rawlins, a private investigator in 1948 Los Angeles, in Carl Franklin’s underrated adaptation of Walter Mosley’s novel.

“4 Little Girls” (1997): Spike Lee made this powerful documentary about the infamous 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing.

“Boycott” (2001): The best of the feature films on Martin Luther King Jr. is Clark Johnson’s 2001 HBO movie about the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, starring Jeffrey Wright as the young King.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article