Spring Cinematheque series explores history of African Americans in American films

Emory Report | Jan. 21, 2020

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Louis Gossett Jr. (right) in an “Officer and a Gentleman,” one of the films scheduled for Emory’s Cinematheque series this spring. © Paramount, 1982.

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The Emory Cinematheque, a weekly series of free film screenings, presents “African Americans in American Film” for its spring 2020 program. The series showcases and examines African American narratives, performers and filmmakers in American cinema over the last 100 years. Four of the titles feature Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr., who will be in attendance at the screenings of his films and will participate in post-screening discussions. 

Gossett, along with filmmakers, scholars and archivists, will explore the implications of race in Hollywood, examined through a socio-political and historical lens. Gossett has a particular interest in using media to eliminate racism, which will also be discussed following the screenings of his films.

All screenings are on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. in White Hall, Room 208. The series runs from Jan. 22 until April 22 and is free and open to the public. 

“The participation of African Americans in the U.S. film industry reflects the challenges faced by African Americans in American society over the last 100 years,” says series curator Nsenga Burton, Film and Media Management concentration co-director. “The struggles and triumphs and everything in between have been represented in film, often from our perspective, over the last century. I am excited about the opportunity to screen these important films, explore this rich narrative and have critical discussions about race and the cinematic imagination through this series.”

The series begins with a centennial screening of Oscar Micheaux’s stunning and controversial silent classic “Within Our Gates” (1920), Otto Preminger’s innovative musical “Carmen Jones” (1954) and the landmark adaptation “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961), which features a distinctive performance by Gossett.

The series also features Ivan Dixon’s rarely-screened “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” (1973), Julie Dash’s groundbreaking “Daughters of the Dust” (1992), Kasi Lemmons’ highly-acclaimed “Eve’s Bayou” (1997), Theodore Witcher’s crowd-pleasing “Love Jones” (1997), “Slam” (1998), Academy award-winning director Barry Jenkins’ first feature film “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008) and the first two episodes of HBO’s must-view new series “Watchmen,” which features Gossett. 

Additional films screened starring Gossett include “Enemy Mine” (1985) and “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982), featuring his Academy Award-winning performance. 

“At the end of the most productive decade for African American filmmaking, in which Hollywood is highly conscious of the need for diversity on screen, this is a great opportunity to look back and see how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go,” says Matthew H. Bernstein, Goodrich C. White Professor and chair of the Department of Film and Media Studies.  

All films will be shown in professional Digital Cinema Package (DCP) or 35mm formats and introduced by Burton. For more information, visit the Emory Department of Film and Media Studies website or call 404-727-6761. 

Emory Cinematheque Spring 2020 Series 

Jan. 22: “Within Our Gates” (1920)

Southern teacher Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) takes a fundraising trip to Boston in hopes of collecting $5,000 to keep a southern school for impoverished black children open. She then meets the warmhearted Dr. V. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas), who falls in love with Sylvia and travels with her back to the South to fulfill her destiny. There, Vivian learns about Sylvia’s difficult past and come to grips that the woman he loves has many unearthed layers. Pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s film “Within Our Gates” explores themes of love and betrayal, pure and prurient interests, while offering historical insight into struggles over class, northern migration and the impact of racism on the everyday lives of black Americans.

Jan. 29, 2020: “Carmen Jones” (1954)

Bizet’s 1875 opera “Carmen” is translated into a contemporary story of sultry factory worker Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge) and Joe (Harry Belafonte) a fearless GI who is engaged to sweet Cindy Lou (Olga James) and has set his sights on flying school. A free-spirit, Carmen sets her sights on Joe, who succumbs to her allure and pursues her with a vengeance. Carmen and Joe risk it all to be together going on the lam until Husky Miller (Joe Adams), a flamboyant prize fighter, enters the picture. Performing with Brock Peters and Diahann Carroll, Dandridge became the first black woman nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her iconic performance.

Feb. 5: “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961)

This iconic and groundbreaking adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s Tony award-winning play explores the lives of the Younger family, who stand to inherit $10,000 after the death of the family patriarch. Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil, who won Tony awards for their performances on Broadway, reprise their roles as Walter Younger Jr. (Poitier) and Lena Younger (McNeil), a mother and son with vastly different idea on how to spend the money. Ruby Dee, Diana Sands and Louis Gossett Jr., who also starred in the Broadway production, reprise their roles in the film. Gossett plays George, the “bougie” suitor for the hand of Walter’s sister Beneatha (Diana Sands). 

Feb. 12: “Claudine” (1974)

Legendary actress Diahann Carroll stars as Claudine, a poor, single mother of six, living in New York City and working as a maid in the suburbs. A welfare recipient, Claudine must hide any signs of material gain including her soon-to-be boyfriend Rupert (James Earl Jones), a trash collector with a problematic past who hesitates to become a father to six children. Will their romance survive the reality of raising six kids, government interference and the pitfalls of being poor and black in America?

Feb. 19: “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” (1973)

The CIA’s first black agent Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) takes what he learns in his government training back to the Southside of Chicago to turn the Cobras, a local gang, into revolutionaries. Dan must navigate the push and pull of the black middle-class (a police captain best friend; a bourgeois sometime girlfriend; and a prostitute with the sense that God gave her) while training youth from the streets who will lead black Americans to a different kind of freedom. Based on the novel by Sam Greenlee and directed by actor/activist Ivan Dixon, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” offers a compelling perspective of what it means to black and free in America.

Feb. 26: “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982)

The arrogant and presumptuous military brat Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) joins the U.S. Navy with his sights set on the Aviation Academy, but he needs an attitude adjustment. At the Academy, he meets Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley (Louis Gossett Jr.), a strict officer who makes it his mission to teach Zach humility and what it really means to be a soldier. Through an unexpected friendship with fellow cadet Sid (David Keith), impetuous romance with Paula (Debra Winger) and Foley’s torment which eventually turns to mentorship, Zack begins to discover who he really is as a man relative to who he wants to be as a soldier. Gossett won the 1982 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his outstanding performance in this film.   

March 4: “Enemy Mine” (1985)

War has been declared between humans and the reptilian Drac race. Following a battle, Spaceship pilot Willis Davidge (Dennis Quaid) and Drac soldier Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett Jr.) become stranded on an isolated planet. The sworn enemies encounter hostile alien life and are forced to work together to survive. Will they be able to maintain a truce in order to survive in this new territory together or will fear of betrayal and the unknown tear them apart? Action and witty dialogue have rarely been combined this effectively. 

March 11: No screening; Emory spring break  

March 18: “Daughters of the Dust” (1991)

Julie Dash’s groundbreaking film, which proved a major inspiration for Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” explores the lives of three generations of Geechee women living on a Gullah community off the coast of South Carolina at the turn of the 20th century. Former West African slaves who adopted many of their ancestors' Yoruba traditions, the Peazant women are in conflict over the next phase of their lives. Should they remain with their tradition-bound matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day) or move to the mainland as urged by the young and vibrant Haagar (Kaycee Moore)? Featuring compelling performances, gorgeous cinematography by Sundance Award winner Arthur Jafa and sweeping shots of untethered beauty on the Georgia coast, Dash’s beautiful film wonders aloud if generational splits can be healed and if progress means letting go of the past or bringing it with you.

March 25: “Love Jones” (1997) 

Theodore Witcher’s film explores the complicated relationship between slam poet Darius (Larenz Tate) and photographer Nina (Nia Long) as they pursue artistic careers in the Windy City. Nestled among a bevy of “hood films,” this gem showcases Chicago’s black middle class and black cultural practices that underscore Darius and Nina’s angst ridden definition and pursuit of love. Buoyed by strong performances by Isaiah Washington and Lisa Nicole Carlson and one of the decade’s seminal soundtracks, the cult classic reminds audiences of what it feels like to fall in love and what it takes to stay there.

April 1: “Slam” (1998)

With so much creative promise, Ray Joshua (Saul Williams), a gifted MC and poet trapped in a Washington, D.C., war-zone housing project known as Dodge City, falls victim to the call of the streets and falls in love with fellow poet Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn) en route to coming to grips with his past choices and the impact on his future. The real-life effects of poverty and the prison industrial complex loom large in this film. Directed by Marc Levin and written by hip-hop writer Bonz Malone along with Williams and Sohn, “Slam” explores how the struggle just might prepare you for the dream. 

April 8: “Eve’s Bayou” (1997)

Louis Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson), head of an affluent black family in rural Louisiana, is a doctor, loving father and husband with a wandering eye and insatiable bedside manner. Roz (Lynn Whitfield) is a beautiful mother and dutiful wife being pushed to the brink of insanity by Louis’ public dalliances and their rebellious children. Precocious Eve (Jurnee Smollett) witnesses one of her father's infidelities and struggles to make sense of it all. With no help from the adults, Eve feels compelled to take matters into her own hands. With lush cinematography and costumes, Kasi Lemon’s first feature film explores the ties that bind and what happens when they begin to unravel, while giving audiences a dramatic look into Creole culture. 

April 15: “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008)

Micah (Wyatt Cenac), a passionate social activist, meets affluent professional Joanne (Tracey Heggins) at a party. After getting drunk together, they have a one-night stand. Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins’ first feature film explores the morning after and the issues that arise when trying to build something meaningful out of what was supposed to be nothing. “Medicine for Melancholy” brings a story of convenience, connection and compromise to audiences.

April 22: “Watchmen,” Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2 (2019)

Set in an alternate history in 1985 where Robert Redford has been president for 30 years, police officers wear masks to protect their identities from a skeptical public and superheroes are forced to live on the margins of society after a government crackdown, HBO’s “Watchmen” embraces and explodes the idea of nostalgia, creating a universe that mirrors contemporary society while simultaneously pushing against it. Based on the groundbreaking graphic novel of the same name, the series explores the ongoing racial and political tensions of society, how we got here, and if real freedom is ever a possibility. With Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson and Louis Gossett Jr.