The adaptation of the 1970s cult classic Sparkle hits theaters today, and while there will be thousands packed and eager to see Whitney Houston’s last on-screen performance, many will see Sparkle for the first time while a small minority will relive the time they saw the original starring Lonette McKee and Irene Cara. The 1976 film about the rise and fall of a singing group of sisters is just one of many classic movies with all-Black casts you’ll want to check out before Hollywood remakes them. If you haven’t seen the original “Sister and The Sisters” shimmy across the stage, do it now! But hey, you don't want to forget about these other gems in Black cinema either!
IMITATION OF LIFE
We dare you to watch Imitation of Life without sobbing. A struggling White actress, Lora, hires Annie, played by Juanita Moore as a live-in maid. Sarah Jane, Annie’s daughter grows up with Susie, Lora’s young daughter and is tragically envious of her whiteness. As she gets older, Sarah Jane uses her fair skin and straight hair to pass for white in spite of her mother’s warning. The movie addresses issues still relevant today, like colorism, familial relationships and love with a classic Hollywood landscape. The original movie was filmed in 1934, but its most popular version was released in 1954, and features a tear-jerking performance of “Trouble of the World” by gospel great, Mahalia Jackson.
CABIN IN THE SKY
Cabin in the Sky is the perfect mix of music, comedy and a dash of Black Hollywood royalty. Originally a Broadway musical, the story hit the Big Screen in 1943. Little Joe, a gambler, is shot over a gambling debt. Before his death, his Christian wife, Petunia, played by Ethel Waters, prays to God for his entry into heaven. God and Lucifer bargain to allow Joe to live for six months for redemption, while they fight over the fate of his soul. Lucifer, Jr. uses Georgia Brown, a beautiful, glamorous club singer played by Lena Horne, to tempt Little Joe into infidelity against his wife. Cabin in the Sky is filled with Black Star Power, casting Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington’s band in the movie. Waters was the second African-American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for her song, “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe.”
In 1975, Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams joined each other onscreen again to film Mahogany. Almost 40 years later, as we play tug of war with our careers and personal lives, we still question Williams’ famous line to Ross: “Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with.” Directed by Motown founder, Berry Gordy, Mahogany is the story of Tracy Chambers’ (Ross) rise from a working girl from Chicago’s projects to a successful high fashion designer. Along the way, she meets Brian Walker (Williams), a promising local politician and an instant love affair begins. When Walker asks Tracy to live his dream of reforming Black Chicago, instead of her own, she flees to Rome where she becomes a fashion model and is renamed Mahogany. There, she must again choose between her dream to design clothing and her lover’s plans for domestic plans for her.
The film featured the wildly popular “The Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?)”, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Complete with innovative fashion, big city flair, Ross’ sass and Williams’ charm, Mahogany is essential in any Black movie collection.
Flashy clothes, big cars, women and drugs, Superfly, produced by Gordon Parks Jr., had it all. It’s one of the top films in during the Blaxploitation era—the movie genre that ruled the 1970s. Ron O’Neal stars as Youngblood Priest, a New York drug kingpin who wants out of the drug game, but not before he makes a grand exit. Superfly chronicles Priest’s struggle to score a big cocaine deal and dodge “The Man” to leave the game on top. Even better than the cinematography, was the soundtrack, produced and performed by the legendary, Curtis Mayfield. Who can forget the iconic drug deal photo montage to the sounds of “Pusherman”? If you want to see the glamour and hardship the drug game had to offer back then, press play on this timeless feature.