Ossie Davis, R.I.P.
If we needed any reason to observe Black History Month this year, we are given a sad one by the passing of Ossie Davis, an actor as influential offscreen as on. Along with his wife of almost 60 years, Ruby Dee, Davis commanded respect while standing up for the rights of African Americans. In films, he extended the range of what we expect from black movie characters.
Most importantly for today's cinephiles, Davis lent his gravitas to the work of Spike Lee, and three of his collaborations with the director are fresh out on DVD. Davis was a judge (naturally) in the moral tug-of-war She Hate Me (Sony Classics), one of the most curious failures in Lee's career. He is a coach in School Daze, the film with which Lee moved from the indie phenomenon of She's Gotta Have It to the studio world. A new special edition of the challenging but very entertaining film is out from Columbia/TriStar, boasting featurettes, commentaries, music videos, and a bonus CD of the film's soundtrack.
Lee's epic Malcolm X is also being released this month by Warner Bros. in a special edition. An obvious choice for Black History Month, the biopic didn't conquer the box office as Lee hoped but does offer a compelling introduction to a figure feared by racists and don't-rock-the-boaters alike. Davis hovers over this film like a minor god, reprising a role he played in real life: He delivers the eulogy after Malcolm X is assassinated.
Another echo of Davis' career arrives this month: The actor first worked with his wife-to-be in 1946, when they appeared together in a stage production of Anna Lucasta. MGM has just released the film adaptation of that play, which stars sometime actors, sometime singers Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr.
Not every new disc relevant to Black History Month includes Ossie Davis, of course. They cover the spectrum, including the drawn-from-life drama Something the Lord Made (HBO) - in which some unlikely casting has Mos Def playing a Jim Crow-era carpenter who, alongside a white doctor (Alan Rickman), develops a surgical technique that has saved thousands of lives in the decades since. Also being released is a videotaped performance of the one-man show James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson (Kultur), in which ever-present basso profundo Jones portrays a singer whose extracurricular influence on politics and the Civil Rights struggle exceeds even Davis'.
Other releases focus more specifically on white-black relations: HBO's Everyday People, for instance, in which a melting pot of characters confronts the closing of a beloved Brooklyn diner. Mike Leigh's splendid Secrets & Lies (20th Century Fox), which should have been out on disc long ago, stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste as a black woman who learns, after tracking down the woman who gave her up for adoption, that her mother is white. As in Leigh's recent heartbreaker Vera Drake, the mother's secret wreaks havoc on her life. Happily, this tale works out better in the end.
Despite my fondness for Bernie Mac, a comic who broke into the prime-time mainstream without losing his edge, I avoided Mr. 3000 (Touchstone) in theaters because trailers made its script look pancake-flat. Now that it's out on video, I see that I'm half-right: The movie is hardly funny at all, even when it tries to be, but it offers other small virtues. This story of an arrogant man who has to shed some pride to regain his position is surprisingly warm; it's lightweight, but it affords a black actor more room to roam than the average mainstream comedy.
One extremely welcome DVD release inadvertently shows how far the movies have come with regard to black characters. The Palm Beach Story (Universal) is one of the precious few films by Preston Sturges, a master of the screwball genre whose brilliant string of comedies is without peer. Employing a brilliant stable of character actors and dialogue that lingers in the ear after the laughter has passed, it tells of a wife who leaves her unsuccessful husband in search of a man who can both support her and give her ex a leg up in the world. It's a classic film, up there with Sturges' already DVD-ified Sullivan's Travels and The Lady Eve, and it has nothing to do with race relations except in one uncomfortable sequence: On the train to Palm Beach, the wife falls in with a club of well-to-do drunkards who are going on a hunting trip. In the middle of the night, the men turn their club car into a literal shooting gallery, ordering their black porter to toss crackers out for them as target practice. He does as he's told, and must helplessly endure the chaos with bugged eyes and tremulous cries for help.
The film quickly redeems itself, but this is the kind of moment Spike Lee collected in Bamboozled, the kind of subjugation Malcolm X railed against, and the kind of role Ossie Davis rose above. A month is hardly enough time to praise them for it, but it's a start. •
By John DeFore