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DIY Film Fest: The last slavery movies you ever need to see


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Tim Cogshell, film critic for KPCC's Filmweek and Alt Film Guide, has joined Off-Ramp's team of commentators. Cogshell blogs at CinemaInMind, and in this commentary, Tim uses the N-word in context.

Here’s what Snoop Dogg said about the remake of Roots:

“I don’t understand America. They just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But guess what, we’re taking the same abuse.”

He said some more stuff too, but that’s what we could broadcast.

NSFW, depending on where you work: Snoop Dogg on slavery movies

On this thing, I’m with Snoop. I've had my fill of slave, maid, butler and chauffeur movies, thank you. Yet recently Snoop and I have endured "The Help," "The Butler," "Django Unchained," "12 Years a Slave," the re-conception of "Roots" and "The Free State of Jones," and the eagerly awaited Nat Turner saga — with its appropriated title "Birth of a Nation" — is on the horizon.

I have all kinds of issues with movies about slavery in America, but I’m a professional film critic rather than a hip-hop maestro, so as part of my series of DIY film series you can do at home, here  are several exceptional films about slavery in America that will get you up to speed on the subject, and get the subject out of my life — and Snoop’s — forever.

1. "A Woman Called Moses"

A 1978  television miniseries you can find online, "A Woman Called Moses" is the story of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who helped organize and conduct the Underground Railroad — and who will soon appear on the $20 bill. Sometimes irony is exquisite.

Part One of the series

The film stars the great Cicely Tyson, who had the distinction of playing most notable black women in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s — no matter their age, complexion or actual nationality — from a teenage Kizzy in the original "Roots" to a 100-year-old Miss Jane Pittman in "The Biography Miss Jane Pittman."

2. "Glory"

I applaud "Glory," from 1989, because the title applies mostly to a bunch of black men. It's ostensibly a movie about a young white colonel and his command of the first all African-American volunteer company in the Union Army. Smartly, director Edward Zwick knew the movie had to actually be about these black men at war to set their people free. So that’s the movie he made, and by doing so he gave us Denzel Washington in his first Oscar-winning performance, a young Andre Braugher, and Morgan Freeman all on screen together. That’s almost as good as Chadwick Boseman, Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle kicking pretty good ass in "Captain America: Civil War." Even though they are not all on the same side and technically the movie is still about the white guys. 

3. "Beloved"

A lot of people don’t get this movie. They’re missing it. Adapted from Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, this 1998 Oprah Winfrey vehicle is deeply affecting and wonderfully acted by its whole cast, which includes Danny Glover in that period-correct Frederick Douglass hairdo. It's the story of a former slave who drifts in and out of brutal memories of her life as a slave, while haunted by the present spirit of the child she killed to keep it from slavery. As a journey into the psychological effects of slavery on a woman, it is unrivaled.

4. "Brother Future"

"Brother Future" is a 1991 TV movie that  asks: “What would I do had I lived during slavery?” 

A sample from "Brother Future"

The answer is almost universal: "Lead my people to freedom!" Phil Lewis plays a young brotha from 1991 Detroit sent back in time to the American south in 1820 to do just  that.

5. The "Nigger Charley" series

The last  movies I’ll mention in our DIY slavery film festival are "The Legend of Nigger Charley," "The Soul of Nigger Charley" and "Boss Nigger" — hard R’s, down the line.  Released in 1972, 1973 and 1975, the titles were controversial back then, too. The N-word was replaced by the word “Black” for broadcast purposes in the first two films, and the third film was often called Boss Charley, or just Boss. Which is a shame because it misses the point of these very pointed post-civil-rights era blaxploitation films. Films that star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson as a brotha who by the end of the series is buying the freedom of black folks like Oscar Schindler, and slapping the snot out of every white man who looks at him funny.

OK, those are all of the movies about America’s peculiar institution you will ever need to see. Choose amongst them to build a DIY Slave Movie Film Festival of your own, and you’ll never have to see another movie about slavery in America, ever, and neither will I, or Snoop.