February is Black History Month, and an entertaining way to celebrate the richness of African American culture is to check out the work of several legendary black performers on video.
Paul Robeson made his screen debut in Oscar Micheaux’s 1924 drama “Body and Soul” (Facets) in a dual role of a conniving preacher and his good brother. One of Robeson’s most famous stage and screen roles is “The Emperor Jones” (Sinister Cinema). Loosely based on Eugene O’Neill’s play, the 1933 movie chronicles the story of a railroad porter who escapes from a chain gang to become the emperor of Haiti.
Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” is a definite highlight of the 1936 version of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical “Showboat” (MCA/Universal). Robeson’s film career came to a halt, though, when he was blacklisted as an alleged Communist during the Cold War era.
Former boxer-turned-actor Canada Lee makes a strong impression in the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Lifeboat” (FoxVideo). In the 1947 John Garfield boxing classic “Body and Soul” (Republic), Lee gives a sensitive performance as a dying boxer. He also excels as a small-town minister in the 1951 adaptation of Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country” (Monterey Home Video). Like Robeson, Lee’s film career ended when he was alleged to be a Communist.
Puerto Rican-born Juano Hernandez, a former boxer who became a radio scriptwriter and Broadway actor, made his film debut in “Intruder in the Dust” (MGM/UA), the 1949 version of William Faulkner’s story about a black man accused of murdering a white man. He’s also quite memorable as a horn player who befriends musician Kirk Douglas in the 1950 melodrama “Young Man With a Horn” (Warner Home Video).
Handsome James Edwards received acclaim for his turn in 1949’s “Home of the Brave” (Republic) as a black soldier sent on a top-secret mission in the South Pacific only to battle racial indignities from his white comrades. Edwards can also be seen in 1949’s “The Set-Up” (Turner) and 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate” (MGM/UA).
Dorothy Dandridge was the first African American actress to receive a best actress Oscar nomination for her sizzling performance in 1954’s “Carmen Jones” (FoxVideo). In the modern retelling of the Bizet opera, Dandridge plays a femme fatale working in a factory; Harry Belafonte is the soldier who falls for her.
Sidney Poitier’s career is still going strong 46 years after his film debut. Among his films worth watching: 1955’s “The Blackboard Jungle” (MGM/UA), in which he plays a bright high school student; 1967’s “To Sir, With Love” (Columbia/TriStar), in which he plays a teacher intent on helping troubled London high school students; 1963’s “Lilies of the Field” (MGM/UA), for which he won the best actor Oscar as a handyman who helps some German nuns; 1965’s “The Bedford Incident” (Columbia TriStar), a taut submarine thriller; and “Separate but Equal” (Republic), the Emmy Award-winning 1991 drama about the landmark 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court case. Poitier plays then-NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall.
Also in conjunction with Black History Month:
* Monterey Home Video’s new “Black History: The Classics” collection ($100) features “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Cry, the Beloved Country” and “Native Son.”
* MPI Home Video has just re-released “Richard Pryor Live in Concert” (MPI, $20), the comic’s terrific 1979 film, which has long been unavailable on video.
* MGM/UA’s new “Blaxploitation” collection ($15 each) features “Shaft,” “Shaft’s Big Score!,” “Shaft in Africa,” “Body and Soul,” “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.”
Documentary: “William Shatner’s Star Trek Memories” (Paramount, $15) is a nifty, informative retrospective on the cult ‘60s TV series based on Shatner’s bestseller of the same name. Shatner is joined on this voyage down memory line by co-stars Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nicols and Walter Koenig.
Killer Bs: John Savage and Matt McColm star in “Red Scorpion 2" (MCA/Universal), a glum thriller about a super-agent who infiltrates a powerful American neo-Nazi group.
David Duchovny goes from “The X-Files” to the near “X-rated Files” in producer Zalman King’s erotic “How I Met My Husband: Red Shoe Diaries 6" (Republic).
New This Week: Kevin Spacey and Gabriel Byrne star in the acclaimed suspense thriller “The Usual Suspects” (Polygram).
Steven Seagal returns as the ex-Navy Seal turned cook in the thriller “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” (Warner Home Video).
Melanie Griffith’s favorite leading man, Antonio Banderas, plays a ponytailed mariachi in Robert Rodriguez’s gore-fest “Desperado” (Columbia/TriStar).
Also new: “Bushwacked” (FoxVideo), “Roosters” (Cabin Fever) and “Under the Hula Moon” (Turner).