As 2014 Black History Month ended, Denzel Washington appeared on late night television to promote his forthcoming performance in Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic “A Raisin in the Sun.” The two-time Oscar winner gave lavish praise and appreciation to Sidney Poitier, the first Black Best Actor Oscar winner and the inaugural Walter Lee Younger in 1959’s historic production of “Raisin.”
Gifted and successful beyond description, Washington honored one of the bridges that brought him across. As we congratulate “12 Years a Slave” for its success on Oscar night, many African-Americans still wait for the young Black British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and director Steve McQueen to acknowledge that they did not create the first film on the life of Solomon Northup. When will they show some reverence for the work of the great African-American pioneer in film Gordon Parks, who, 30 years ago, directed the PBS TV film “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey”? This trailblazing film was one of the earliest to be funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and it starred the superb African-American actor Avery Brooks.
African artists risk getting lost in the concept of “art for art’s sake.” The 2013 film “12 Years a Slave” is certainly very powerful. It is the most painfully carnal and graphic portrayal of slavery that I have ever seen. Its cinematography engages and disturbs all of the senses. It is intimately terrifying and a brilliant moment in filmmaking, but we must remember, nonetheless, that this excellent work is not the first cinematic portrayal of Northup’s story. Its remarkable artistry is bonafide while its “discovery” is fraudulent.
In 1984, the first film, “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey,” could not have exposed our nation’s horrific chattel slavery in as raw and blaring a way as the 2013 film did. Our society was not ready. Featuring direction and music composition from the genius of the late Parks; magnificent performances by Brooks and other veteran African-American character actors like the late Joe Seneca; and a screenplay co-written by Samm Art Williams, the releas of the 1984 film is too important an event in African-American art not to be respectfully remembered and recognized.
Nov. 30 was Gordon Parks’ 101st birthday. Parks is remembered best for the photographic essays he did in Life magazine and as the director of the 1971 film “Shaft.” He was an awe-inspiring photographer-writer-director-musician. He was, undoubtedly, Black America’s preeminent humanitarian photojournalist as well as an innovator in film. New Jersey has at least one school named for Parks, formerly Stockton School in East Orange. Parks was a sturdy bridge to future successes for emerging Black filmmakers.
Rekindling our esteem for him, Brooks did an avant-garde performance of “Round Midnight” at Amiri Baraka’s funeral on Jan. 18. Among other accomplishments, Brooks’ unique portrayal and rich baritone voice quelled the controversy that initially surrounded the biographical drama “Paul Robeson.” Brooks, a longtime member of Rutgers University faculty, may be best known for his television roles on “Star Trek,” “Spenser: For Hire” and “A Man Called Hawk.”
As the Hollywood establishment continues to ignore the 1984 cinematic breakthrough by Parks, it also failed to recognize “Lee Daniels’ the Butler” with an Oscar nomination. Reliably, the NAACP, America’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, restored African-American cultural harmony by celebrating Forest Whitaker and “Lee Daniels’ the Butler” at its 2014 Image Awards ceremony.
There are bridges that connect the past, present and future in the African-American experience. Honoring African-American cultural traditions, Whitney Houston revered Chaka Khan in “I’m Every Woman.” Singleton was deferential to Parks in the “Shaft” sequel. “Black Nativity” venerates Langston Hughes. Revivals of “A Raisin in the Sun” always pay homage to the original cast. Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir should certainly continue to be resurrected by African artists in the Diaspora, but with appropriate historical acknowledgements.
If we remember to honor the bridges that brought us across, we may also be able to sustain a cultural climate that more equitably recognizes great art.