Black History--A Primer


February is Black History Month, and a great way to celebrate is by checking out these videos starring legendary African American performers.

One of singer Harry Belafonte’s best films is 1959’s “Odds Against Tomorrow” (MGM/UA). Belafonte gives a strong performance as a gambling junkie who teams with a racist ex-con (Robert Ryan) and a crooked former cop (Ed Begley) to rob a bank. Shelley Winters also stars in this underrated thriller, tautly directed by Robert Wise.

Belafonte plays a handsome soldier who is seduced by the charm and beauty of femme fatale Dorothy Dandridge in 1954’s “Carmen Jones” (FoxVideo, $20), Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical melodrama based on the Bizet opera. Dandridge was the first African American to receive a best actress Oscar nomination. Diahann Carroll and Pearl Bailey also star.

Legendary singer Ethel Waters received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1949 drama “Pinky” (FoxVideo), as the Southern grandmother of a young, light-skinned black woman (played by white actress Jeanne Crain) who passed for white while living in the North. Elia Kazan directed the then-controversial film.


Cicely Tyson received an Emmy for her superb work in the landmark 1974 TV-movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (Prism, $15). The 110-year-old Pittman recalls the history of blacks in the South from the Civil War to the civil rights era.

Tyson also received a best actress Oscar nomination for her memorable turn as the loving matriarch of a Louisiana sharecropper family trying to survive the Depression in the moving 1972 drama “Sounder” (Paramount, $15). Paul Winfield and Kevin Hooks also star; Martin Ritt directed.

Forget the silly plot of the 1943 musical “Stormy Weather” (FoxVideo, $20) and just enjoy the performances of such legends as Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, the Nicholas Brothers and in his last screen appearance, the wonderful hoofer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

Vincente Minnelli made his directorial debut with the snappy 1943 musical “Cabin in the Sky” (MGM, $20). Based on the Broadway hit of the same name, the film features Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson, Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong performing such tunes as “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” and “Honey in the Honeycomb.”


April marks the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus breaking major league baseball’s color barrier. In 1950, Robinson starred in the well-received bio-pic “The Jackie Robinson Story” (MGM, $20). Ruby Dee and Louise Beavers also star.

Sidney Poitier gives one of his best performances in “A Raisin in the Sun” (Columbia, $15), the splendid 1961 adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed Broadway play about a black Chicago family trying to make a better life for themselves by moving to an all-white neighborhood. Diana Sands, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett Jr. co-star.

Also worth watching is the well-acted 1989 “American Playhouse” version of “Raisin” (Monterey Home Video, $40), starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle.

New and Noteworthy: OnDeck Home Entertainment’s informative two-volume “That’s Black Entertainment: African-American Contributions in Film and Music (1903-1944)” ($25) looks at the the early years of black cinema and features short films (the prints are less-than-wonderful) starring Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway and Lena Horne. The second tape highlights “The Soundies Era: Black Music Videos From the 1940s.”