Noteworthy African American Performances
In celebration of Black History Month, author and film historian Donald Bogle joins TCM host Ben Mankiewicz in paying tribute to a number of groundbreaking performances by African Americans in the movies. Bogle, an expert on the Black experience in the entertainment world, has been a frequent contributor to TCM. Our first group of films include three that trace the development of Sidney Poitier, the first African American actor to emerge as a mainstream superstar and the first to win an Oscar as Best Actor.
Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), based on the Alan Paton novel, was an early credit for Poitier. In support of fellow Black actor Canada Lee, Poitier plays the younger of two ministers fighting the effects of apartheid in South Africa. Tom Hutchinson, a critic for RadioTimes, wrote, “One of the acting delights is Sidney Poitier as a young preacher who forgives all, but forgets nothing.”
Poitier’s breakout film as an actor was Blackboard Jungle (1955), in which he plays a troubled student in an inner-city school who clashes with an idealistic teacher played by Glenn Ford. In Slant magazine, critic Jeremiah Kipp described this Poitier performance as “scalding hot.” Poitier was in his prime in A Raisin in the Sun (1961), the original film version of the Lorraine Hansberry play about a Black family hoping for a better life through the purchase of a new home. Repeating his stage role, Poitier plays the son, who feels hemmed in by his domestic responsibilities and his job as a chauffeur. His performance was described by Stanley Kauffman in The New Republic as “tigerish, impassioned,” noting that Poitier moved through the film “with a marvelous sense of dramatic rhythm.”
In the Heat of the Night (1967), filmed during Poitier’s reign as Hollywood’s preeminent Black leading man, tells the story of an African American police officer who becomes embroiled in a murder investigation in a small town in Mississippi. The movie won five Oscars, including for Best Picture and Best Actor (costar Rod Steiger). Writing in The New York Daily News, Wanda Hale declared that “nobody but an actor of Poitier’s stature could have characterized” the detective “with such forcefulness.”
Following are other highlights among the films and actors represented in this Special Theme:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), an MGM film starring Mickey Rooney as Mark Twain’s plucky hero, features Rex Ingram as Huck’s slave friend Jim. Ingram, who began his career as an actor in silent films, went on to amass a long list of credits in movies and television. For a time, he was among the most prominent Black performers in Hollywood, and he also functioned as a producer, writer and director. Rooney biographer James L. Neibaur described Ingram’s performance as Jim as “committed and often quite moving…beautifully played.”
Super Fly (1972), a successful “blaxploitation film,” stars Ron O’Neal as Youngblood Priest, a Harlem cocaine dealer who longs to go straight but finds his efforts spoiled by underworld associates and his own ambitions. Roger Greenspun wrote in The New York Times that O’Neal “lives the part with a kind of furious authority.”
A Soldier’s Story (1984) is based on the 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Soldier’s Play, about a murder at a segregated Army base in World War II-era Louisiana. Harold E. Rollins Jr., as the lead investigator, heads a cast that includes four members of the cast of the original Nego Ensemble Company stage production in New York: Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington, Larry Riley and William Allen Young. Caesar earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as the master sergeant who is shot to death.
This writer, reviewing A Soldier’s Story for Louisville’s The Courier-Journal in 1984, stated that “It’s unlikely that you’ll find a more high-voltage ensemble of actors.” I reserved special praise for Caesar and his “brilliant, acid-edged portrait of the doomed sergeant.”
Among other movies in the tribute are Broken Strings (1940), starring Clarence Muse; In This Our Life (1942), featuring Ernest Anderson and Hattie McDaniel; Moonrise (1948), featuring Rex Ingram; Stars in My Crown (1950), featuring Juano Hernandez; The Pawnbroker (1965), featuring Brock Peters and Morgan Freeman (in his film debut); and Take a Giant Step (1959), starring Johnny Nash with Estelle Hemsley (a Golden Globe-nominee as Best Supporting Actress), Ruby Dee, Frederick O’Neal and Beah Richards.
Also showing is A Man Called Adam (1966), starring Sammy Davis Jr. with Ossie Davis, Cicely Tyson, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Brown, Jeanette DuBois and George Rhodes; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968), featuring Percy Rodriguez and Cicely Tyson; and Sparkle (1976), starring Irene Cara, Philip Michael Thomas, Lonette McKee, Dwan Smith, Mary Alice, Dorian Harewood and Tony King.
By Roger Fristoe