The Sunken Place is defined by the writer as “being conscious, but powerless.” Despite the in-your-face digs at interracial relationships (whole towns have burned, Black necks broken on tree limbs and economies pillaged because of the status/fetish relationship between Black men and Caucasian women), we understand that every Black person in the United States of American is in the sunken place (some more than others). Enter Jordan Peele, who took every thought I had and plastered it on the screen for the world to see. The catharsis this film gave to Black people is undeniable. We truly understand “the sunken place” is a real thing… seriously.
Growing up, the film landscape held many movies, plays and narratives about singing groups.. Dreamgirls, The Five Heartbeats, Jersey Boys, A Star Is Born.. but here is the first ever narrative that happened in my lifetime that spoke to ME directly. It is one thing to be represented on the screen, and another to see the events you lived through in full focus. Straight Outta Compton is the coming of age story that helped the world understand that Hip Hop culture is not rap, it is the fight to maintain our power in a f*cked up system meant to strip us of our voice.
They say Love can heal, but BLACK LOVE? That is a revolutionary act. This film did not get the attention and praise it deserved, and we in the community know why.. it centered on a patriarchal Black family with a strong father, doting and good kids. But Sadly, it was not how the world wanted to see the Black family. This was a dent in the Black poverty porn that emitted from screens around the nation, and for that it makes VANGAURD status. Plus.. DeRoy Lindo… nuff said.
In my house Richard Pryor was a god next to Jesus himself. While my mother hid his records from us (ha! nice try Mom), every space he occupied in film and TV she made sure watched and understood how involved he was in front of the camera AND behind. As the writer AND producer, he could cast our Harlem princess Cicely Tyson (a dark-skinned woman) in the LEAD romantic role and have the soundtrack done by Luther Vandross and Roberta Flack. He changed the narrative. This film strengthened my love of cinema and the power it wields to employ a whole community. BUSTIN LOOSE’s ingenuity was not only in the plot, but in the background story of overcoming the Hollywood machine. Note: Let’s not forget this was a true movie made specifically for Black children to enjoy with their families.
Of course Spike Lee himself is the G.O.A.T., but when it comes to the VANGAURD collection, DO THE RIGHT THING is inducted in to the list. It proved once and for all that Spike is the KINGMAKER when it comes to putting new talent on the map and providing us decades of chest pumping. No other director has come close to what he has done when it comes to making careers. On another note, the themes in this this movie spoke to my sensibilities as a young activist. It put a clear lens on the issues of not having ownership in our neighborhoods and the loooong lasting effects of Jim Crow in a way that everyone could understand.. even white people (with a bit of explaining and after getting them to actually watch it). It was the first movie I saw that said “representation matters!”. No… I don’t want to eat anywhere that takes my money but erases me as an individual because I am Black. I MATTER. Spike helped me form the words, his films gave me the courage to speak.
“Dolemite is my name.. rappin and tappin is my game”. Growing up in the culture of Hip Hop, I knew very early on who were the originators of rap. FYI : Rap is the music genre of Hip Hop culture. It began in the bee-bop days, but it’s FIRST occurrence on wax was the THE LAST POETS (the first rap group ever). The first appearnace on the big screen? DOLEMITE the alter ego of Rudy Ray Moore. While the plot was slapstick, this movie is added to the VANGAURD COLLECTION because of Rudy Ray Moore himself. The feats this man went through to write produce and “quiet-as-its-kept” direct his films (and his movies thereafter) is a lesson in true independent films that do not need a Hollywood studio to be successful. It was also the beginning of independent Black media buying power. It showed Hollywood that communities of color where NOT sheep and WE can choose what we support. Powerful.
One word. HARLEM. Everyone I knew, was in this film or knew someone in it. It was also the coming of age story that my teenage heart needed that reflected communities that represented the experience of myself and my friends. On the other hand this was the rise of TuPac, Khalil Kain (a good friend of mine), Jermaine Hopkins and Omar Epps. Forget New Edition, these guys were the REAL deal, and we showed our love at the box office in droves and elevated this narrative to cult status. Written and directed by a Black man, Black communities around the world took ownership of this story. It was a beautiful time in the neighborhood. We went from bragging about having “juice” to actually seeing a movie hit the screen that respected your slang, language, dress and culture. Yea… THAT is what is means to have JUICE.
Yes another Spike Lee joint on the VANGAURD list. While this is not the first time our comedic heros were seen on film.. this one hit different. It was directed with our community in mind while showing the sheer massive power and influence of our genre. These four were selling out ARENAS. It created a Black comic revolution. Spike’s camera made sure to show the audience, to show the joy, to show the laughter on massive scale. These were the tried and true Uncles of the Black community and it spawned an era of local and regional comedy shows and festivals that let folks eat in ways never before seen. also… BERNIE MACK and Steve’s sing-a-longs… it was everyone’s summer picnic/family Christmas/Easter/New Years rolled into one movie.
Scarface captured the hearts of the American Black & Carribean community, simply because we could relate to the immigrant narrative and experience here in the US. Constantly fighting for our right to succeed in a capitalist society, any film that showed the underdog winning was accepted in our community. Then enters SHOTTAS, starring the crown PRINCE of everything Black …a whole Marley boy-child (that means a descendent of Bob Marley). The streets went wild for this gangsta flick that was authentic as hell, unapologetically written and directed by a young Black man of Caribbean descent. This ushered in the era of independent young filmmakers like myself, waking up and saying to each other… WE can tell our story too. And we did.
I had NEVER seen Black people f*cking on a movie screen. EVER. So imagine my wide eyed-jaw-dropping surprise when my college African-American studies teacher turned out the lights and pressed play on what he said would “change how you look at the white world forever”. There in living color was a beautiful Black ass grinding in pleasure on the big screen, but what happened next was even more jaw dropping. A serious film about fighting police brutality AND the community was in it? Not a Blackploitation comedy? I was in heaven. Black women considered beautiful on the movie screen??? Pinch me!
We were told to keep mum about watching the film, as it is/was considered propaganda that could incite one of us to be the Black messiah COINTELPRO was afraid of(research it). It was the first time I began to fully understand the power of movies and media. Sweet SweetBack netted over 15Million in box office receipts independently and introduced community economics through film entrepreneurship. It cemented my path. Years later I made the decision to present Melvin Van Peebles with the highest award from my film festival THE VANGUARD. I got to spend time with him at his home, enjoy his family and tell him that his courage inspired my own legacy in this fight for equality. Salute!
The Harlem Film House, a 501© 3) corporation, produces film & music festivals operates year-round workshops, theatre productions and live events.1. - list text here