At this year’s Oscars, Moonlight‘s Best Picture win made history in several ways far beyond the chaos that happened at the ceremony. For the rest of March, my Thursday lists will be related to some of those ways in which Moonlight made Oscar history. First, Moonlight became the first movie with an entirely African-American cast to win the top award. There have been very few widely seen movies with entirely African-American casts, so I will have to make a list of movies with mostly black casts (and there hadn’t even been one of those to win Best Picture before this year). So here are the best I’ve seen.
10. Chi-Raq (2015)
A modernization of Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata set in present-day Chicago in the midst of gang violence, Spike Lee’s audacious style in this film seems to polarizing, but I find it smart, thought-provoking, and emotionally devastating yet often hilarious.
9. What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993)
Angela Bassett and Lawrence Fishburn were both nominated for their Oscars as Tina and Ike Turner. Their tumultuous relationship and Tina’s freedom both in her career and all of her life make for a powerful and ultimately inspiring picture.
8. Get on the Bus (1996)
Spike Lee created one of the greatest road films of all time with this journey of those traveling together for the Million Man March. The men come from very different backgrounds and though they gathered for a unified purpose, we see the conflict and confusion that challenges but never hinders that unity.
7. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
25 years before Moonlight, John Singleton’s movie should have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The story of life in the ghettos of L.A. and trying to avoid gang violence is far better than the year’s Oscar winner The Silence of the Lambs and better than any movie I’ve seen from 1991. Unfortunately, it was not even nominated. However, John Singleton did receive nominations for his direction and his screenwriting.
6. Stormy Weather (1943)
Andrew L. Stone’s musical is a rare one that does have an entirely African American cast. It follows the same plot formats of Fred & Ginger movies and films with Busby Berkley choreography. The songs by Fats Waller are much better for the most part, and there is one number that makes Stormy Weather one of the most important films ever made. It has a reverse type of minstrel show with the black women made to look like the white women of the time. There may not be an attempt for “white face” but the number definitely represented a strong opposition taken against the norms of oppression against African Americans.
5. Eve’s Bayou (1997)
At age 11, Jurnee Smolett gave one of best child performances of all time, caught in the middle of trying to live the life of a normal child after having witnessed a very grown-up problem and being forced to keep it a secret at great risk to her family. She’s both the victim and the perpetrator of destructive deception. Kasi Lemmons’ direction is so perceptive in the creation of two separate worlds (the adult world and the children’s world) and how the collision of those two worlds should be productive for both but is harmful instead because of the lies and the secrets that fill and threaten to kill both. This is another one of the rare films to feature an entirely African American cast.
4. A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Much like last year’s Fences, this film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s portrays an African American family in the 1950s who is unquestionably oppressed by the white world around them, yet we see none of that world in the movie but only the world of the family itself. Sidney Poitier gave one of his best performances as the man giving everything and making every sacrifice to give the family ever chance possible, but his sacrifices were so great that as beneficial as they may have been for the family, they also led to self-destruction. Hansberry wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of her own play, and it is a profound slice of life in a time period that may be past but is all too relevant to today’s culture.
3. Carmen Jones (1954)
Based on Oscar Hammerstein’s English-language adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen with a modern (as of 1943 when the stage adaptation was written) American setting is as great a tale of the downfall caused by greed and lust as Bizet’s original opera. This is yet another film with an entirely African American cast.
2. Do the Right Thing (1989)
27 years before Moonlight, Spike Lee’s masterpiece should have won the Oscar for Best Picture, but like Boyz n the Hood 2 years later, it wasn’t nominated. Only Spike Lee’s original screenplay and white supporting actor Danny Aiello got nominated. Simply showing the intersection of lives in one day in a New York City neighborhood, a complex and important story about how prejudices develop and stay alive forms. It asks huge questions of morality but has the decency not to give any simplistic answers but leave us very unsure about things we may have thought we were sure of before watching it.
1. The Color Purple (1985)
31 years before Moonlight became the first film with an entirely African American cast to win Best Picture, Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple should have become the first movie with at least a predominantly African American cast to win the award. Whoopie Goldberg gives one of the ten greatest acting performances as all time as Celie, a young woman whose existence is formed by the abuse and misogyny she was subject to as a child. We follow her in her journey from victim to survivor to victor. It’s the most inspiring film I’ve ever seen.