Mojo workin'

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996


The stance of the outsider is crucial to American culture, and no American group has more experience with apart-ness than blacks. Blacks probably see through the mask of smug American righteousness better than whites. The visions of the black urban experience on film are seen through such eyes and, as a consequence, force Americans to bear witness to things than can be vicariously thrilling, unpleasantly truthful, or both.

"Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1970), directed by Ossie Davis, captures the boisterous, gritty spirit of Chester Himes' fiction in a tale of detectives on the trail of a crooked preacher in Harlem. The humor in this movie is pitch perfect.

"Sweet Sweetback's Badassssss Song" (1971), directed by Melvin Van Peebles, was way ahead of its time in tale of a black outlaw on the run who outwits dim whites at every turn. Groundbreaking film belongs entirely to Van Peebles.

"Shaft" (1971) and "Shaft's Big Score" (1972), both directed by Gordon Parks, proved that the action-oriented detective movie fit a black cast as smoothly as a .38 fits in a well-worn shoulder holster. Isaac Hayes' smoldering soundtrack (in first film) is no small contribution.

"Cooley High" (1975), directed by Michael Schultz, is usually tagged the black "American Graffiti" and that's true in a sense. However, it captures things universal about teen life that eluded the original.

"Car Wash" (1976), directed by Michael Schultz, is a tad dated but only because it captures the fashions, hair, politics, music and attitudes of the 1970s so well. This was a benchmark of hipness once, and it's still pretty cool.

"Do the Right Thing" (1989), directed by Spike Lee, about a very hot day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, is a masterpiece and one of the great films about America. The post-riot coda, when a pissed off Danny Aiello literally throws money at the indignant Spike Lee, speaks volumes about American race relations.

"Boyz N the Hood" (1991), directed by John Singleton, is unusually perceptive in its observation of black ghetto life in Los Angeles, especially since the filmmaker was just 23 years old. Many trenchant and uncomfortable truths emerge.

"Just Another Girl on the IRT" (1993), directed by Leslie Harris, takes all kinds of risks in portraying a black Brooklyn teenager bristling with attitude and sexuality who makes wrong choices but not only survives but, in a way, prevails. This is, indeed, a movie that Hollywood dared not do.

"Clockers" (1995), directed by Spike Lee, preserves the soft-boiled ambiance of Richard Price's novel about teenage drug dealers who are nervous rather than cocky, intimidated by authority rather than flip, and immature rather than worldy wise.


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