A few years ago, I wrote a newspaper story for Black History Month about Hollywood films and their historical portrayals of African Americans. In response, I received several hostile phone calls (anonymous, of course) challenging the very idea of having a month devoted to the study of black history. The callers each wanted to know when I would be writing about "White History Month."
Had they left return phone numbers, I would have explained to my critics that for far too long the history of African Americans, as well as the history of other minority groups and women, had been neglected or distorted. Furthermore, the history of African Americans should be viewed as an essential part of the study of American history as a whole, as our lives have been intertwined since the earliest days of the colonization of North America. With this in mind, here are some recommendations of DVDs for this year's Black History Month:
●Neshoba: The Price of Freedom (First Run Features, $27.95, not rated): In 1964, a coalition of civil rights organizations sponsored the Mississippi Summer Project, aka "Freedom Summer," in which college students from the north spent the summer in Mississippi helping to organize voter registration drives, teach at "freedom schools" and take part in other efforts against segregation. The goal was to bring more national attention -- and pressure -- on Mississippi and the federal government.
One June 21, three men working on the project -- James Chaney, 18, a black Mississippian, and Mickey Schwerner, 25, and Andrew Goodman, 20, both white Jewish New Yorkers -- disappeared after being released from police custody in Neshoba County, where they had been arrested on a bogus traffic charge. Their bullet-ridden bodies were discovered six weeks later, buried in an earthen dam; Chaney's body showed the effects of beatings and torture as well. Eventually, the FBI arrested 21 people, many of them affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, for the murders. Some of the accused bragged openly about what they had done. But after the State of Mississippi refused to prosecute, the federal government brought charges against the men for civil rights violations (there was no federal murder statute at the time). Seven men were eventually convicted and spent two to six years in prison. The man suspected of being the ringleader of the murderers, a Baptist minister and KKK leader named Edgar Ray Killen, was acquitted by a hung jury.
Had filmmakers Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano simply made a documentary about the Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman case, it would have contributed to our understanding of one of the most notorious murders and miscarriages of justice during the long battle for civil rights in America. But Neshoba: The Price of Freedom also moves the story ahead 40 years, when an interracial group of Neshoba County residents, supported by the surviving relatives of the three murdered men, successfully prodded the State of Mississippi to reopen the case and bring new charges of murder against Killen.
Artfully blending archival footage of the 1964 events with scores of new interviews (including several with Killen, who appears to relish the opportunity to spout his racist and anti-Semitic bigotry, as well as with Chaney's mother and siblings, Schwerner's wife and Goodman's mother and brothers), the filmmakers offer an incisive look into the state of race relations in Mississippi then and now. It's a film of terrible memories and newfound hopes, a reminder that there should be no statute of limitations in the pursuit of justice.
●Night Catches Us (Magnolia Home Entertainment, $26.98/$29.98 Blu-ray, rated R, to be released Tuesday): This remarkable feature film debut from writer-director Tanya Hamilton explores what happens to black revolutionaries after the revolution has failed. Hamilton presents images of Black Panthers in action in the late '60s (marching, bearing arms, and serving breakfast to poor children) as the backdrop for a drama set in Philadelphia in 1976 about former Panthers.
The death of his father has brought onetime Panther Marcus Washington (an outstanding Anthony Mackie) back home to his old neighborhood after being gone for over four years. He encounters hostility from his brother (Tariq Trotter, of the R&B band The Roots), who has converted to Islam, and a former comrade (Jamie Hector, from The Wire), now a mobster, who thinks that Marcus was the snitch responsible for the murder, years earlier, of the Panthers' leader at the hands of the Philadelphia police. But two people don't believe Marcus was an informer: a police detective (Wendell Pierce, of The Wire and Treme), and, more significantly, Patricia Wilson (Kerri Washington), the widow of the late Panthers leader who is now a defense attorney and the mother of a precocious 10-year-old daughter (Jamara Griffin).
Those who don't know much about the history of the Black Panther Party will not learn a great deal from Hamilton's film, as it is far more concerned with character and atmosphere. But Night Catches Us shows with great sensitivity the human side of the Panthers as former members grapple with their legacy, the still-hostile relationship between the black community and the Philadelphia police, and their future.
●For Kids: Scholastic Storybook Treasures is a series of read-along DVDs featuring acclaimed children's books brought to life on screen and narrated by famous actors. Duke Ellington ... and More Stories to Celebrate Great Figures in African American History (New Video, $14.95, recommended for ages 4-9, to be released Tuesday) includes stories about jazz composer/orchestra leader Ellington, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, the legend of John Henry, and more. Forest Whitaker, Phylicia Rashad, Billy Dee Williams, and Samuel L. Jackson provide the narrations. Also new is Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship ... and More Stories to Celebrate U.S. History (New Video, $14.95, recommended for ages 4-9, to be released Tuesday), which includes a story about the lives of President Abraham Lincoln and former slave/emancipation leader Frederick Douglass, and their friendship, narrated by Danny Glover.
● Blu-ray upgrades: The Great Debaters (The Weinstein Company, $19.97, rated PG-13): Denzel Washington directed and starred in this powerful 2007 film about the debating team at Wiley College, an African-American college in Texas, during the mid-1930s. The inspirational story of the team's surprising success against elite universities (including Harvard) is accompanied by some searing, unforgettable scenes about the day-to-day degradation and discrimination faced by African Americans in the South during the era of Jim Crow. Bonus features include deleted scenes and short documentaries on Wiley College and how the movie was made.
●The Color Purple (Warner Home Video, $34.99, rated PG-13): Steven Spielberg's 1985 dramatization of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel stars Whoopi Goldberg as the oppressed wife of a sharecropper (Danny Glover) in the segregated South. The story covers the years from 1909 to 1949. This digitally remastered Blu-ray Book edition comes with a 40-page book filled with rare photographs and production notes, and more than 80 minutes of bonus features on the transformation of Walker's novel to the screen.
Unfortunately, Warner Home Video's planned Blu-ray release of Spike Lee's Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington as the black nationalist leader, has been postponed due to "a music clearance issue."