Feb 11, 2008

Corliss, what gives?

Recently, Time Magazine's Richard Corliss published his The 25 Most Important Films on Race. Even in our list obsessed culture, it's hard to come across one as peculiar, clumsy and half-baked as Corliss' attempt to assign importance to 25 films on race.

Corliss narrows his range to films African-American subject matter, but doesn't offer any further criteria for his selections, other than saying his black history month inspired list is meant "to honor the artistry, appeal and determination of African Americans on and behind the screen. The films span nine decades, and reveal a legacy that was tragic before it was triumphant." before going on to mention that "The fact remains that of the 25 films here, chosen to cover the widest range of black films, fewer than half were directed by blacks". Clearly, by studying the list, one can deduce that the 25 most important films on race are really the 25 most important black films by directors working in America, regardless of color or national origin. The racial diversity of America (or the world for that matter) and its incalculable cinematic representations are reduced by Corliss to a small crossection of films that toil in the rhetoric of American blackness.

Taking a closer look at the selections however, one quickly gleans that a majority of the films, even if their protagonists or a major supporting player happen to be African-Americans, aren't really about race at all. From Corliss' earliest pick, Oscar Michaeux's 1925 Paul Robeson starrer Body and Soul, to his ludicrous final pick, Will Smith's latest cash cow I Am Legend, many of the films Corliss has chosen, regardless of their quality, have very little to do with American race relations or notions of Otherness in our culture or any other. Certainly Do The Right Thing, Imitation of Life, Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song, In The Heat of The Night, The Jackie Robinson Story, Bamboozled, A Soldier's Story, Richard Pryor: Live In Concert, The Defiant Ones, God's Step Children and Native Son, are, to some degree, addressing questions of race as their principle thematic concern, to wildly varying degrees of success.

The others just happen to be about African-Americans or just have a few (or one) in them who became movie stars. In some instances, the films were cultural touchstones regarding representations of African-Americans, and also made a good deal of money. Some, like Native Son, didn't raise much of a fuss, but are from prestigious black literary properties. Many of them are just not very good. What business do I Am Legend, Madea's Family Reunion, God's Stepchildren, Hallejuah, Judge Priest, and Carmen Jones have on any list of importance?

I know this is all very subjective, but if the goal is to draw attention to truly innovative cinematic achievements by blacks in America than where is Chameleon Street? Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One? The Spook Who Sat By The Door? How about Micheaux's second feature, Within Our Gates, which, although as inept as his others, is the first film to depict Lynching in visceral and realistic terms.

John Ford's The Searchers or Sergaent Rutledge surely had more to say about the mythologies and daily realities of racial difference in America in their time than Madea's Family Reunion does now.

Why not include European or African films, like Abderrahmane Sissako's didactic but ultimately devastating Bamako? Where is Michel Haneke's Code Inconnu, which has more to say about the consequences of prevalent racial conceptions in the West than just about any film I know. Although it receives a mention in the SSBS write-up, why pass on Melvin Van Peebles' sure handed Story of A Three Day Pass, the first narrative feature directed by an African-American (albeit in France) in the twenty years after Micheaux final feature, The Betrayal. This complete absense of black American directorial efforts, even if they were never allowed to work in Hollywood pre-Gordon Parks, ironically coincided with the old studio systems post War decline, ending roughly around the time of Easy Rider and the corporate take over of Hollywood that began in the late 60's.

And of course, the skeleton in the closet, Mr. Griffith's 1915 bohemeth, Birth of a Nation. How could you exclude the most racially divisive film in the history of American cinema from a list of the most important films on race? Well, at least Corliss didn't include Crash. Say it ain't so Dick, say it ain't so.