C. COUNTER-CANON OF AMERICAN CINEMA

Prior to the Obama administration (2009-2016), these feature films should have, but almost never did, appear on all-time-best lists of American cinema. This is “counter-cinema” in the sense of “counterculture,” not necessarily part of a separate culture but made in a spirit of challenging the status quo. Each was considered fairly progressive upon release (however they seem now). This list excludes short films. Welcome to 100 excellent, influential, and/or important milestones of diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality.

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C1. Where Are My Children? (Weber, Smalley, 1916) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“…children should not be admitted to see this picture unaccompanied by adults, but if you bring them it will do them an immeasurable amount of good.”

Earliest surviving feature film co-directed (some say, entirely directed) by a woman, this film says much about the abortion debate during the suffragette era; this is about a eugenics-favoring judge, a “society” doctor who proudly performs abortions, and the “society” lawyer who tries to put him in jail…until the latter learns of his wife’s many secret abortions

Influenced by: Susan B. Anthony; prevailing, Griffith-era codes of style and decorum; Lois Weber is not credited as director but scholars have named her the film’s lead creative force

Influenced: less of an influencer and more of a symbol of its era

C2. Deliverance (Platt, 1919) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“IN THIS MOMENT OF TRIUMPH The Light of Understanding thrills Helen….The realization that she lives in a world where all things have a name!”

For Americans, the story of Alabaman Helen Keller, born blind, deaf, and mute, and Anne Sullivan, who helped her to communicate with the world, is the ur-story of disabled advocacy, and this film includes Keller and Sullivan playing themselves as aged women; unlike The Miracle Worker, this presents mature Keller’s fierce advocacy for all disenfranchised persons

Influenced by: prevailing narrative codes, hybridizing fiction and non-fiction in rather effective ways

Influenced: of all people born disabled, Keller’s story inspired millions (she was often called the 8th wonder of the world)

C3. Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“It is my duty and the duty of each member of our race to help destroy ignorance and superstition.”

Second feature, and oldest surviving feature directed by an African-American (his first film is lost), this is writer-producer-director Micheaux’s gangbusters story about a Southern black woman on a journey for funds for a poor black school against the background of Jim Crow, the revived Klan, the Great Migration, and her mixed-race heritage   

Influenced by: The Birth of a Nation; W.E.B. DuBois-era literature, resistance

Influenced: Micheaux created the “race film” (made for and by black people), which would remain a minor and low-budget subgenre until about the 1950s

C4. The Sheik (Melford, 1921) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“When an Arab sees a woman that he wants, he takes her.”

Most important silent feature for both Arab-Americans and Hispanics, because it confirmed and perpetuated stereotypes of each; the randy “sheik” captures a robust, solo-traveling white woman and demands her deference, yet the prisoner comes to love her captor (from a novel written by a woman!), who is revealed to be Spanish; this hit film popularized the Latin Lover (though Rudolph Valentino technically wasn’t Latinx)

Influenced by: colonialist ideas about Arabs and white women, though the novel’s rape scene was removed

Influenced: Latin Lovers, “sheik” as a very popular type/name of the period

C5. The Vanishing American (Seitz, 1925) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I’m afraid there is no other way – these Indians are my friends…..but I must send them to their death….”

Most important of many pro-Native American silent features, partly because it popularized Monument Valley and Arizona more generally, partly because Zane Grey’s novel explored various aspects of Navajo conflict from pre-Columbian history through World War I, although movie used redface and diluted novel’s critique of white Americans by assigning flaws to one deluded white man

Influenced by: rich post-Wounded Knee Native American literature and films 

Influenced: Not enough people; Navajo and indigenous cultures kept vanishing

C6. Hallelujah (Vidor, 1929) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Seems like you made it mighty late to get ’round here to be married. The damage is all done!”

Along with Hearts in Dixie (1929), first major studio feature with an all-African-American cast and first all-black musical; Hallelujah! was the first time many whites had heard black dialect/dialogue and some authentic jazz (as in the “Swanee Shuffle” scene); this was also a pioneer of sound mixing and a key early promoter of black stereotypes of criminality and immorality 

Influenced by: jazz, Stephen Foster, Vidor’s interest in “negro spirituals,” prevailing racism

Influenced: mainstreaming of both African-American culture and stereotypes, but because it and Hearts of Dixie (also 1929) bombed, 14 years passed until another major studio film with an all-black cast

C7. Freaks (Browning, 1932) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“We accept her, we accept you, gooba-gabba, one of us, one of us.”

Granddaddy of sound films about the physically unusual, this story of empathetic carnival misfits reverses typage yet remains an anti-miscegenation cautionary tale, this time between a sweet little person and a scheming full-sized trapeze artist; initial audiences were so disturbed that 26 minutes was amputated, making the film resemble some of its subjects; “we accept her, one of us” has become iconic

Influenced by: almost nothing; described as belonging to a subgenre of one

Influenced: reviewers were disgusted, but later artists loved it, e.g. the Ramones, Bertolucci, Scorsese, ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘South Park,’ Ryan Murphy

C8. She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Why don’t you come up some time and see me?”

Best and best-known film starring Mae West (based on her own play), a hit that saved Paramount Pictures; this film of her usual sordid-sideshow shenanigans also has a “classic” mammy played by Louise Beavers; along with the gangster cycle, West’s sexually forthright persona shocked the Hays Office, which reacted with rigorous enforcement of the Hays Code, ending West’s career

Influenced by: character comedy like that of W.C. Fields; West’s Broadway career, which was pro-feminist and pro-LGBTQ

Influenced: Hays Code enforcement; helped make Cary Grant a star; generations of funny and brassy women

C9. Imitation of Life (Stahl, 1934) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Go amongst your own. Quit battlin’! Your little head’s sore now from buttin’ against stone walls. Open up and say, ‘Lord, I bows my head.’ He made you black, honey. Don’t be tellin’ Him His business. Accept it, honey. Do that for your mammy, your mother, dear.”

Based on Fannie Hurst’s novel, this film provides the iconic archetype of the “tragic mulatto” figure as well as her relationship with her mammy (called “mammy” here) who blesses her daughter “passing” as white if it makes her happy (sometimes it does, other times she’s beaten for it); this story about single women sacrificing to raise their daughters summarized white-progressive pieties in the 1930s

Influenced by: the original novel and film

Influenced: Hollywood’s pivot to literary work; its approaches to race and to women; Micheaux’s God’s Step Children (1938) was a response

C10. Bordertown (Mayo, 1935) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“The only fun I get is feeding the goldfish, and they only eat once a day.”

In some ways the first “social problem” film, this is the best pre-World War II film about Mexican-Americans, partly because Ramirez, a young lawyer-turned-club manager, is mostly viewed sympathetically, even if he is played by a white man; censoring forces prevented the word “greaser,” Ramirez from killing a man, and Ramirez consummating an affair with a white woman

Influenced by: Warner Bros. studio’s investment in realism, “gutter” subjects; decade’s two most prestigious star-actors, Bette Davis and Paul Muni

Influenced: Chicano portrayals through World War II; Davis claimed that her controlled presentation of insanity (instead of hysteria) was a Hollywood first 

C11. The Little Colonel (Butler, 1935) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“I’m not stubborn! Don’t you call me that!”

First of four cinematic pairings between the decade’s biggest star, Shirley Temple, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – their iconic staircase dance made Mr. Bojangles a star; a classic mammy type, played by Hattie McDaniel, tells Temple’s character the Lost Cause-inflected story of her family’s breakdown, and she tries to reconcile them

Influenced by: Lost Cause mythology then prevalent in Hollywood and American literature

Influenced: the iconography of a black man and a little white girl was a mixed bag: at least that one thing was safe, but the imagery also cartoon-ified Bojangles

C12. Show Boat (Whale, 1936) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Queer how a woman goes to pieces over a man. She was the best bet in Chicago until that curly-haired tramp threw her down.”

Queer man-directed, definitive version of the best American musical before “Oklahoma!”, this film was then progressive, about a white woman with a bad white husband who leaves him to raise their kid alone, and also about racial prejudice that keep a white man and black (but white-passing) woman apart; Hattie McDaniel as Queenie and Paul Robeson as Joe often transcend black stereotypes

Influenced by: frothy musicals as contrast; this put new seriousness in the genre

Influenced: musicals; Robeson’s version of “Ol’ Man River” has become iconic

C13. Angels with Dirty Faces (Curtiz, 1938) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You’ll slap me? You slap me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.”

Studios mostly responded to the Depression with escapism (e.g. Top Hat), but Warner Bros.’ brand was based on street life, the gutter, and, often, its biggest star Jimmy Cagney (who was also arguably the 1930s’ biggest star); these reached their artistic peak with this film, which is also the best film about Irish-American conflicts back when Irish in the US were a disenfranchised ethnic group

Influenced by: The Dead End Kids; pre-existing Irish-American tensions; the Cagney persona

Influenced: criminal-vs.-priest films like On the Waterfront (1954); working-class Irish-American normalization, which continued with films like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

C14. Mexican Spitfire (Goodwins, 1940) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“When I think of Dennis jilting a lovely girl like Elizabeth to marry that little Mexican wildcat, I can hardly contain myself.”

After The Girl from Mexico (1939) proved an unexpected hit, RKO brought back the same talent for seven more films, all starring Lupe Vélez as Carmelita Fuentes, who is “mismatched” with her white husband; these were comedies of errors and intercultural (mis)communication that ultimately soothed miscegenation tensions and were responsible for a popular Latina stereotype

Influenced by: some of Dolores Del Rio’s comedies; prevailing norms, although it was its own breakthrough

Influenced: perpetuated the hot-blooded, temperamental Latina stereotype; some felt these films influenced “I Love Lucy”

C15. Dance, Girl, Dance (Arzner, 1940) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“What’s it for? So you can go home when the show’s over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I’m sure they see through you. I’m sure they see through you just like we do!”

From the end of the silent period until her retirement (1927-1943), Dorothy Arzner was the only female director working in Hollywood, and this stands as her most fully articulated feminist film, a female buddy-comedy, about two dancers that come to burlesque with rather different backgrounds and expectations, that sometimes works to indict patriarchal audiences on screen and off

Influenced by: Arzner’s skill, deploying yet subtly challenging Hollywood codes

Influenced: this was Arzner’s last completed film; unfortunately Hollywood did not rush to hire other female directors

C16. Cabin in the Sky (Minnelli, 1943)

C17. The Three Caballeros (Ferguson, 1944)

C18. Gentleman’s Agreement (Kazan, 1947)

C19. Home of the Brave (Robson, 1949)

C20. Border Incident (Mann, 1950)

C21. The Young Lovers (Never Fear) (Lupino, 1951)

C22. Broken Arrow (Dawes, 1950)

C23. The Salt of the Earth (Biberman, 1954)

C24. Carmen Jones (Preminger, 1954)

C25. Tea and Sympathy (Minnelli, 1956)

C26. Sayonara (Logan, 1957)

C27. South Pacific (Logan, 1958)

C28. The Defiant Ones (Kramer, 1958)

C29. A Raisin in the Sun (Petrie, 1961)

C30. Flower Drum Song (Koster, 1961)

C31. The Miracle Worker (Penn, 1962)

C32. Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968)

C33. The Boys in the Band (Friedkin, 1970)

C34. Little Big Man (Penn, 1970)

C35. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song (Van Peebles, 1971)

C36. Shaft (Parks, 1971)

C37. Coffy (Hill, 1973)

C38. Enter the Dragon (Clouse, 1973)

C39. Blazing Saddles (Brooks, 1974)

C40. Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet, 1975)

C41. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975)

C42. Up in Smoke (Adler, 1978)

C43. Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1978)

C44. The Wiz (Lumet, 1978)

C45. Norma Rae (Ritt, 1979)

C46. 9 to 5 (Higgins, 1980)

C47. Zoot Suit (Valdez, 1981)

C48. Chan is Missing (Wang, 1982)

C49. Yentl (Streisand, 1983)

C50. Scarface (DePalma, 1983)

C51. Desert Hearts (Dietch, 1985)

C52. The Color Purple (Spielberg, 1985)

C53. Children of a Lesser God (Haines, 1986)

C54. Matewan (Sayles, 1987)

C55. Hairspray (Waters, 1988)

C56. Coming to America (Landis, 1988)

C57. Rain Man (Levinson, 1988)

C58. Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)

C59. Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1991)

C60. My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant, 1991)

C61. Thelma and Louise (Scott, 1991)

C62. Boyz N Tha Hood (Singleton, 1991)

C63. Mississippi Masala (Nair, 1992)

C64. The Waterdance (Jimenez, 1992)

C65. A League of Their Own (Marshall, 1992)

C66. El Mariachi (Rodriguez, 1992)

C67. Malcolm X (Lee, 1992)

C68. The Joy Luck Club (Wang, 1993)

C69. Philadelphia (Demme, 1993)

C70. Mi Familia (My Family) (Nava, 1995)

C71. Pocahontas (Gabriel and Goldberg, 1995)

C72. Waiting to Exhale (Whitaker, 1995)

C73. Eve’s Bayou (Lemmons, 1997)

C74. Smoke Signals (Eyre, 1998)

C75. Boys Don’t Cry (Peirce, 1999)

C76. Ali (Mann, 2001)

C77. Better Luck Tomorrow (Lin, 2002)

C78. Real Women Have Curves (Cardoso, 2002)

C79. Far From Heaven (Haynes, 2002)

C80. Monster (Jenkins, 2003)

C81. Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (Leiner, 2004)

C82. Saving Face (Wu, 2005)

C83. North Country (Caro, 2005)

C84. Brokeback Mountain (Lee, 2005)

C85. The Ringer (Blaustein, 2005)

C86. Dreamgirls (Condon, 2006)

C87. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2009)

C88. Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail (Perry, 2009)

C89. Precious (Daniels, 2009)

C90. The Princess and the Frog (Clements and Musker, 2009)

C91. The Kids are All Right (Cholodenko, 2010)

C92. The Hunger Games (Ross, 2012)

C93. Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012)

C94. Fruitvale Station (Coogler, 2013)

C95. 12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2013)

C96. Frozen (Buck and Lee, 2013)

C97. Cesar Chavez (Luna, 2014)

C98. Selma (Duvernay, 2014)

C99. Tangerine (Baker, 2015)

C100. Furious 7 (Wan, 2015)

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