It was a Black History Month celebration, the likes of which I’ve never seen. Cars lined up well before the 6 p.m. start at Rocky Graham Park in Marin City for a free drive-in movie night.
It was a double feature: “Red Tails,” the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, and “Hidden Figures,” recounting the unsung Black women who played a major role in launching the modern space era.
The event was produced by Felecia Gaston’s Performing Stars nonprofit organization. It was a night to remember.
As groups drove up, they received a huge cardboard container of fresh vegetables, a shoe box full of fried chicken and potato salad, cookies (with faces and names of Black notables) and a 2021 calendar featuring important dates in Black history. Even hot chocolate and popcorn were brought to cars.
It would have been enough to be so treated, but what made the evening so memorable were the films, the subject matter, the stories they told and the heroes they portrayed.
Having reached the “three quarters of a century” mark in age, my mind scanned the arc of Black films available to me growing up. Things have changed. Although there has always been a community of Black filmmakers and directors outside the Hollywood system — from Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams and William D. Alexander — the mainstream films available prior to the 1950s portrayed Black people as either obedient servants, corpulent cooks, maids or pullman porters. Only occasionally prior to the mid-’50s emergence of actor Sydney Poitier could you begin to see fully dimensionalized characterizations of Black people on screen.
One such movie was the 1957 “Edge of the City.” Poitier portrays a Black longshoreman on the Manhattan waterfront docks who befriends a White co-worker. In defense of his friend, he gets into a fight with a White racist bully foreman. They fight with bailing hooks and, in the struggle, Poitier is killed. After first refusing to testify as to what and who started the fight, Poitier’s White friend relents so justice can ensue.
As an 11-year-old, my parents brought me to the Screening Room theater on Jones Street in San Francisco. We were invited, along with other Black families, to preview the film to determine if the city’s ethnic community would watch without provoking unrest. I was traumatized. I had never witnessed such a brutal death sparked by racial antagonism. Why couldn’t the good guy have lived?
Six decades later in Marin City, we were heroes of our own stories. We were men and women who made a difference to the American story. What a difference for a preteen in 2021.
Within the memories of my parents, we as a people endured the 1915 “Birth of a Nation,” a cinematic triumph but an historical tragedy. It nearly single-handedly, with its biased ahistorical slant on the Civil War and Reconstruction, helped promote a warped view of the past and was responsible for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. “Gone with the Wind,” another romanticized, “moonlight and magnolias,” lost cause portrayal of White Southern history, did further damage.
The road to today’s film fare has not always been a straight line but has shown progress: from “Lilies of the Field” to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” to “In the Heat of the Night” to “Shaft;” from “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” to “Malcom X,” “Muhammed Ali” and “42,” a biopic on the life of Jackie Robinson.
As a standalone, the 2017 blockbuster “Black Panther” starring the late Chadwick Bozeman is, to date, the apotheosis of where we have come. Yet there is much yet to be done, more real stories to tell, more history yet to be uncovered.
Thanks to Gaston, and others, for keeping our stories alive and inspiring future generations to pick up the torch.
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