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The Black Screen

The Heritage CinemaPlex Launches a Yearlong Celebration of the 100 Best African-American Films

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted 2/11/2004

When City Paper interviewed Heritage CinemaPlex founder and CEO Michael Johnson last spring, the local film historian and film lover spoke with contagious enthusiasm about his two latest projects: a new, two-screen Towson location for his theater, the only African-American-owned and -operated theater in the country dedicated to screening first-run and classic African-American films; and the 2003 Maryland Black Films and Black Film Makers Festival, a four-day celebration of African-American film housed at the Heritage that boldly ran during the Maryland Film Festival.

Cut to a dismal, icy Baltimore day in February 2004. Johnson has just come down with that vicious cold that's going around. But instead of doing what most people would do under the circumstances--cancel all appointments, sleep, O.D. on O.J. --Johnson's on the phone for roughly an hour, speaking passionately about this year's even more bold project: an 11-month-long film festival, seven years in the making, titled The 100 Greatest African-American Films. The festival, which begins Thursday, Feb. 12, will, as the name implies, screen 100 African-American films, culminating with the top-rated film on Dec. 31, 2004.

Johnson conceived the festival around the same time that the American Film Institute (AFI) released its much-contested list of the 100 Best American Films, in 1998. "I was struck by the absence of African-American films on their list," Johnson says. "If I'm not mistaken, the only film on the AFI's list that has a main African-American character is Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." He pauses. "That one didn't make our list at all."

Convinced that the public could come up with a list of 100 African-American films--which he describes as any "films that have primarily black characters or story lines"--that were just as great as the movies cited by AFI, Johnson began an open-ended campaign to collect votes, with balloters having the option of naming single titles or long lists of favorites. The campaign solicited opinions over the Internet, but also depended on an in-person grass-roots effort that took the vote to the people. "We took it to black fraternities and sororities, we took it to clubs, to men's and women's groups, to political events," he recalls.

Since 1997, Johnson and his associates have collected roughly 125,000 ballots from cineastes on an international level. "We sent out e-mails across the country and the world. And we got votes from people from Great Britain, from Africa, from all the islands, from Scandinavia"--Johnson lets out a small laugh--"from white countries that I know ain't got no black people."

The resultant list includes a staggering array of titles from every era of film history. "The most interesting one that made it, which really is a black film, was The Birth of a Nation," Johnson says. "I think the reason people voted for it is because it literally was the catalyst for all the stereotypes that were subsequently put in African-American films."

While the other films are arranged according to the number of votes received, Johnson has designated D.W. Griffith's influential but infamously racist silent epic from 1915 the 100th Greatest Black Film. That way, he notes, "the top 99 films we're all real happy about."

But Johnson feels strongly that even offensive images of African-Americans constitute a piece of film history that should not be ignored. It's through these initial images, he suggests, that we can trace the evolving cinematic depictions of African-Americans. Johnson specifically cites a genre of short films in the early 1900s that depicted African-Americans eating watermelons; they were marketed as comedies.

"The celebration of 100 years of film that the AFI had applies to the black community as well," he says. "Thomas Edison put out a film, a nickelodeon [titled Watermelon Contest]. It was only a short film, a minute long maybe. But we don't want anyone to think that when film history began, black folk weren't there--even though it might not have been on the most satisfying level."

As a sharp contrast to these early, offensive portrayals on film, Johnson proudly cites the number of films from the festival that originated during the 1970s. Many of these films--including Superfly, Shaft, and Three the Hard Way--fall into the genre commonly known as blaxploitation, a term Johnson argues does not apply to this era.

"In the '70s, there were more black people working in Hollywood then than are working in Hollywood today," he says. "So I don't call it the black exploitation period, I call it the full-employment period."

Indeed, this festival makes a strong case for the '60s and '70s as a golden era for African-American film. From biting satires like The Watermelon Man to lighter comedies such as Uptown Saturday Night and more dramatic pieces such as Cornbread, Earl, and Me, those decades ushered in an era when mass-marketed films with primarily black casts became commonplace--and successful. While one could debate the overall cultural impact of a film such as Shaft, which some African-American cultural critics argue perpetuated stereotypes of black people as overly violent and oversexed, it would be hard to deny that such films also carried with them an empowering image for black audiences unaccustomed to seeing strong, righteous black heroes writ large on the silver screen.

The promise of this era came to an end with the 1980s, because, Johnson hypothesizes, the new box office reality of Star Wars and Steven Spielberg called for fewer small pictures and fewer films lacking in mainstream crossover appeal. This left independent films such as Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust to carry on the mantle of black film until the last decade, when black-cast films like the Barbershop franchise again hold box office sway. The festival will include many recent films, including titles like The Hurricane and The Caveman's Valentine, which have been made since balloting for the fest began.

Still, just because Hollywood is again making films with primarily black casts, Johnson cautions, doesn't mean they're good. "There's some stuff out there," he states simply, "that's just bad. And if you book it just because it's black, then you haven't really given the community anything. I've seen Barbershop 2. It's funny as hell. I go to the old-school barbershop and I see that--the old man who ain't cutting nobody's hair, the young son who took over the shop--that's literally my barbershop. . . . But then I see something like My Baby's Daddy."

For Johnson, the exciting part of the festival is about to begin. Having located prints--ranging from video to 35-mm sources--for all 100 films, the time has come to sit back and watch some movies. Johnson speaks gushingly, although with some surprise, that his favorite comedy of all time, Mel Brooks' western spoof Blazing Saddles, made the list; he sounds less surprised, but no less proud, to be screening his personal favorite dramas, A Raisin in the Sun and The Color Purple. Given his encyclopedic recall for film minutiae, Johnson also delights in the festival's more obscure offerings, such as Amazing Grace, a 1974 Baltimore-set comedy starring Moms Mabley as an elderly political rabble-rouser.

The Heritage has released a list of all 100 festival films, but will reveal their order only as screenings approach, to maintain suspense about the top-rated films. In conjunction with this project, Johnson has been working on a self-published book titled Tinted Lens: 100 African-American Films That Influenced a People and Me, which he hopes will be released by the end of this spring. Tinted Lens promises to feature reflections upon each title from Johnson and a variety of other celebrities, scholars, and average filmgoers. Recently, he has even been investigating the possibility of bringing Heritage-esque programming to other theaters around the country.

Luckily, Johnson has never been one to shy away from nurturing multiple big ideas to simultaneous fruition, and, refreshingly, it's clear that the main motivation behind his Heritage programming remains a pure love of cinema. He speaks of the festival lineup like a proud parent, and to hear him is to want to share in that kinship.

"Many of these films didn't make a ton of money, especially not by today's standards," Johnson sighs. "But they obviously influenced people and made a difference in many people's lives."

Heritage CinemaPlex's 100 Greatest African-American Films begins Feb. 12 with a screening of Superfly at 7 p.m. and again on Feb. 13 at 9 p.m. This week's additional screenings include Pipedreams Feb. 15 at 3 p.m. and Feb. 16 at 1 p.m. The Heritage CinemaPlex is at 1045 Taylor Ave. in Towson. For more information, call (410) 832-7685.

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