Southern Movie Bonus: Another Black History Month Sampler
In February, we take time to celebrate and recognize the contributions and achievements of African Americans. So, in honor of Black History Month, the Southern movies listed below are either about African Americans in the South or come from African-American culture in the South. From more recent years, moviegoers may be familiar with 2012’s The Help or 2013’s Selma, but here are eight Southern movies that may be less familiar to modern audiences.
Murder in Mississippi (1965)
Released the year after the 1964 murders of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, the film follows a carload of Civil Rights workers who head south to help with voter registration. In the beginning, the interracial group is optimistic but the events and circumstances they face quickly sour that. While the movie is low-budget and at times dogmatic, its candor about the violence and cruelty of white supremacy is remarkable, considering the time in which it was made. Particularly interesting is its open recognition that white Civil Rights workers were not facing the same situation as black Civil Rights workers.
One notable face from the film is D’Urville Martin, who played the angry beatnik at the ice cream stand in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and later was Willie Green in Dolemite. In this film, he is listed in this movie as Martin St. John, but film buffs won’t mistake that face and voice.
The Black Klansman (1966)
More than fifty years before Spike Lee made his film of almost the same name, this stark, low-budget film used “passing” to tell the story of a black man who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. It brought viewers, who were in the midst of the Civil Rights era, the Deep Southern story of a light-skinned “negro” in Los Angeles who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in his old hometown of Turnerville, Alabama after they kill his young daughter in the fire-bombing of a church. The opening credits explain that the screenplay is based on a song of the same name by Terry Harris. Though it’s probably too early to be considered “blaxploitation,” this one from the mid-1960s does have some of those characteristics.
tick . . . tick . . . tick . . . (1970)
This film tells the story of a small Southern town whose long-time white sheriff has been voted out of the office by newly enfranchised blacks. The new sheriff is a cool-and-collected family man played by football great Jim Brown. Of course, the white townspeople are not fond of their new black sheriff, but neither are the few militant blacks, who want this new empowerment to mean a reversal of the power structures. Jim Brown’s righteous character Jimmy Price is determined to have law and order prevail— but he is caught in the middle. Though we never get to know exactly where they are in the South, one bit of dialogue implies that their small town lies somewhere between Atlanta and Birmingham.
While taking on the well-known racial issues of the day, this film throws in a few of the supporting characters that we expect: an omnipresent Ku Klux Klan looming near every precarious scene, a troublemaking bigot from a notoriously shiftless family, and a self-important local bigwig. It’s all there. We even get a mass-violence scene full of lawless mayhem near the end.
With a title based on an old racial distinction, this early ’70s movie deals with the plight of biracial women in Creole society in Louisiana. We find our way to the story, which is set in the 1840s, through a white Northerner who comes to stay with relatives down South. He encounters the ugliness of slavery and those who make their living from it, but in seeking employment as a teacher, meets a beautiful young woman and falls in love. The problem is: they can’t be together.
Though it has a point in presenting the moral quagmire that was the pre-Civil War South, the film’s plot moves slowly, and its main character is white. However, the bulk of its message revolves around the difficult lives of biracial women who were limited by and exploited within rigid social strata.
JD’s Revenge (1976)
This one has a supernatural premise: a gangster murdered in New Orleans in the 1940s comes back to get revenge using the body of a law student. The main character Ike (Glynn Turman from Cooley High) begins behaving uncharacteristically once he is inhabited by the spirit of JD Walker, who wants to kill his killer Theotis. The film’s other star Louis Gossett, Jr. was primarily a TV actor during this time, and a few years shy of his big-screen successes in the ’80s (in An Officer and a Gentleman then Iron Eagle).
A Gathering of Old Men (1987) and A Lesson Before Dying (1999)
Ernest J. Gaines, who died in 2019, was an incredibly good storyteller whose works capture the complexity of Southern life, but he was also one whose works did not always make good adaptations. Of course, he wrote the novel that became the well-known 1974 movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which did well. Unfortunately, A Gathering of Old Men was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1987, and did not do so well. While that latter film is true to the novel’s story, the screenplay gives away the ending at the very beginning, which removes much of the novel’s tension. Here again, we have Louis Gossett, Jr. who plays Mathu, the man at the center of the plot. Finally, Gaines’ novel A Lesson Before Dying was also made into a TV movie in 1999, with Don Cheadle and Mekhi Phifer playing the main roles. This last film won several Emmys as well as other awards.
The Rosewood Massacre occurred in January 1923, following a period of severe racial violence in late 1922. The tiny rural community of Rosewood is located on Florida’s Gulf Coast about halfway between Tallahassee and Tampa. This film dramatizes the historical events. It stars Ving Rhames and was directed by John Singleton, who made 1991’s Boys N the Hood.