Black cinema has truly made its mark in pop culture and the talent of African American filmmakers is superb and sublime. The early 70s created the Blaxploitation genre, where African Americans were evolving to a higher filmic ground post-Vietnam. African Americans were angry, and understandably so considering their troubled past of prejudice. As a result, they were not afraid to tell a story that would create impact, but would, in the long term, wake up America. Here, we will look at five films in the canon of black cinema that should considered as significant in their cultural impact on the landscape of American culture.
In 1991, Boyz n the Hood garnered much success and made a great impact in Hollywood, catapulting several uprising actors to stardom in the process. Cuba Gooding, Jr. may not have won his Oscar for Jerry Maguire had he not shown his captivating charisma in this 90s classic. Boyz in the Hood is the critically acclaimed story of three friends growing up in a South Central Los Angeles neighbourhood, and of street life where friendship, danger and love are a daily struggle. Writer-director John Singleton captured the gritty life where a simple trip to the store could lead to death, and as a result became the first black filmmaker nominated for a Best Director Oscar (as well as the youngest director, period). The reality of urban LA gangs and drive-by shootings scared America, but conveyed the tragic realism of deprived areas. A strong-willed father (played by Laurence Fishburne) guides his son Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) down the right path of a good future, despite the friends he associates with. The film taught us that, in South Central, violence seems like the only recourse. It was gritty, poetic and, at the best of times, profoundly moving.
Jungle Fever is a powerful film where writer-director Spike Lee explored the provocative consequences of interracial relationships. Wesley Snipes plays Flipper Purify, a black architect who begins an affair with Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), his working class secretary. Their relationship causes them to be scrutinised by their friends, cast out from their families and discriminated by neighbours in this challenging view of New York City life. The supporting cast had Samuel L. Jackson playing Snipes’ brother and Halle Berry, both low-life crack addicts. Berry claimed that in order to prepare herself for the role of a "crack ho", she "didn’t bathe for a month." Snipes and Sciorra’s chemistry onscreen is so sexual that it made interracial relationships look so forbidden. This was one of the first films that explored interracial relationships in a brutal depiction, whereas 1967’s Guess who’s Coming to Dinner explored the topic in a more heart-warming aspect.
What is about 1991 that captured black cinema at its best? New Jack City is a state of the art gangster movie. It is simply mesmerising and spectacular, if rather preachy. Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) is an African American success story, an entrepreneur who’s found the ultimate cash crop: crack. Nino thinks he’s untouchable, but he’s wrong, as a handful of street smart cops are determined to bring him down. New Jack City is one of the ultimate gangster movies of the 90s with a powerful anti–drug message. The hip hop soundtrack is catchy, with Ice T rapping the scintillating track New Jack Hustler. However, to see T himself as the lead protagonist, was a perfect opportunity considering it was his debut film. Snipes’ witty line, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is now part of pop culture, simply meaning we look out for one another, but how he delivers the line is what makes his performance such an impressive antagonist. The film opened our eyes to Chris Rock playing Pookie, a crack addict going undercover to take down Nino Brown. It’s a must see film containing sex, drugs, and rap.
In 1995, black cinema brought us a film by the Hughes brothers and it's a bloody, brutal and brilliant. Following the success from 1993’s Menace II Society, Albert and Allen Hughes reminded the world that a black Vietnam veteran would return back to America destined to be a failure. A Vietnam vet adjusts to life after the war while trying to support his family, but the chance of a better life may involve crime, bloodshed and murder. Larenz Tate’s performance is intense, cool and hard-hitting. The soundtrack of soul is what defines this film, with the likes of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes. For a 90s film to capture an era of the late 60s and early 70s that was so real, it taught us that the African American soldiers had it the hardest as America never praised them for their bravery, but only diminished them.
Finally, 1972’s Super Fly, one of the original blaxpoitation films and is a perceptive, fast-paced and very important piece of work. Priest (played by the late Ron O’Neal) is a prince of the streets, a charismatic businessman who wants out of the cocaine-dealing. But a mysterious kingpin doesn’t want him to change his ways. This all leads to trigger murder, revenge and double-crossing that will push Priest into a corner. Super Fly is one of the more enduring streetwise films of its era, with a sizzling soundtrack of Curtis Mayfield that's so fresh and funky that for an early 70s film, it introduced cool in the ghetto. This film influenced Quentin Tarantino as he stole and parodied scenes from this film for Jackie Brown as the scenes where Pam Grier double-crosses Samuel L. Jackson is practically identical. What must make this film most notable is the fashion in this film was truly out of this world. Big pimp coats, big hats with feathers, big heeled boots, gigantic collars and flairs show it was truly a film made for its time and still stands out to be a must see movie.