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). Among the criteria: each film had to be at least an hour long, fictional (not a documentary), American in the sense that no other country could claim it (and centralizing at least one Anglo-American character), and streamable as of August 2021 (many great films are not). 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. Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on criterion

“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

C3. 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

C4. Body and Soul (Micheaux, 1925) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“You white-livered, lying, hypocritical beast – to steal my poor mother’s money!”

The best-reviewed of Micheaux’s surviving silent features, the debut of Paul Robeson (who plays the lead), and a crucial part of Micheaux’s project of representing African-American life in its many, many facets; in fact, the complex film was so realistic that the state of New York ruled that the film would “tend to incite to crime” and forced several cuts (of the only surviving print), despite the fact that Micheaux’s wicked character are eventually punished anyway.

Influenced by: Micheaux’s remarkable ambition and perspective on many parts of society

Influenced: Robeson became a star and eventually an almost Marcus Garvey-like figure, but this film was mostly only seen by Black people, codifying the “race film”

C5. Ramona (Carewe, 1928) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Your mother was an Indian. Your father was a white man. He married her after my sister refused him.”

Oldest surviving feature film directed by a Native American that is focused on the indigenous, this adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel often surprises modern audiences who expect only racism from silent Hollywood; Chicasawan Carewe directed this story about a half-Native, half-Mexican who “switches” because of societal prejudice, and yes, it is marred by the lead actor’s blatant redface, but this is partially compensated by the complex story that was, like most before World War II, empathetic with Indians, and partially by the biography and talent of Dolores Del Rio in the title role that arguably made her the first A-list Latina star

Influenced by: Two previous versions, one directed by D.W. Griffith (!), both of which Carewe improved upon with more authentic indigenous culture; this was UA’s first film with synchronized sound and music, but not dialogue, marking this as a transitional silent

Influenced: suffered from timing, because by 1928 everyone wanted dialogue, but Del Rio proved her chops, partly by singing the theme song, and soon became Hollywood’s biggest Latina star of the 20th century (until Jennifer Lopez)

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. Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935) clip IMDb LB RT trailer wiki
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“To a new world of gods and monsters!”

With many auspicious choices, including “casting” author Mary Shelley as the title character, queer director James Whale created perhaps Classical Hollywood’s best film — and most resonant filmic metaphor — about outsiders being treated as monsters; some have read the green-skinned creation as raced, and others have read Pretorius as gay (and the film as campy), although these are contested readings

Influenced by: German Expressionism, obviously, although half the cast speaks in American accents; unlike many sequels, this was clearly justified by the source material, and Hurlbut and Balderston’s script, as well as John Mescall’s camerawork, built the best of all possible creations

Influenced: horror; noir; the representation of the freaky monster; often considered Whale’s masterpiece and one of the best sequels; then there is the ubiquitous iconography of the lead creations

C11. The Women (Cukor, 1939) clip IMDb LB RT trailer wiki
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“There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in polite society, outside of a kennel.”

Anita Loos and Jane Murfin made Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 play acceptable to the Hays Code, but they and queer A-list director (his sexuality being an open secret) George Cukor preserved the acidic nature of Luce’s lampooning of upper-class ladies; of the film’s 130 characters with at least one line, all 130 are women, a kind of experiment that wasn’t soon repeated with women or any other marginalized group

Influenced by: related to his queer status or not, Cukor was known as Hollywood’s best “woman’s director” thanks to films like Little Women and Sylvia Scarlett (where Katharine Hepburn plays a woman pretending to be a man), leading to him being hired to direct Gone with the Wind, but he and producer Selznick fell out, freeing Cukor to make this film

Influenced: on one level, this film demonstrates the glamour and surfeit of female stars (and wedding-ready sets) of late-30s Hollywood; on another level, this was a road not taken with any other disenfranchised group

C12. 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”

C13. 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

C14. Stormy Weather (Stone, 1943) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Dancing, but on account of the bartender being sick, the cook had to take the bartender’s place, the waiter took the cook’s place, and I had to take the waiter’s place.”

After eschewing all-Black casts for 14 years, Hollywood again tried two such films, partly because MGM’s Freed unit needed ideas that might unite the troops against the racist Nazis; with MGM making Cabin in the Sky, Fox and producer William LeBaron threw together something that would treat Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s life as Yankee Doodle Dandy treated George M. Cohan’s; the finished product has little to do with Bojangles’ life or genuine Black life of the 20s, but made up for that with many, many more songs than Cabin in the Sky and a movie that well honors the first half of the 20th century’s greatest Black star, Bojangles, particularly with the Nicholas Brothers’ “Jumpin Jive” routine which Fred Astaire called the “greatest movie musical number”

Influenced by: Bojangles’ life, but very loosely (for example, there was never a Selina as Lena Horne plays her)

Influenced: as with the two all-Black musicals of 14 years before, Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky did well, but not well enough for skittish white moguls to take another chance like that for another 11 years, with Carmen Jones (1954); nonetheless this film reverberated, particularly with later dancers like Gregory Hines and Savion Glover

C15. The Gang’s All Here (Berkeley, 1943) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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“Some people say I dress too gay, but every day I feel so gay, and when I’m gay I dress that way, is something wrong with that?.”

Fox’s most expensive movie ever (then) was Busby Berkeley’s chance to respond to FDR’s insistence on The Good Neighbor Policy, which he does with the first dialogue spoken after the first song, a song performed by Carmen Miranda (“there’s your good neighbor policy”); the film serves as a reasonable introduction (for the unfamiliar) to Miranda’s and Berkeley’s camp feminism; the final number suggests that Berkeley was determined to out-surreal, out-psychedelic any avant-garde filmmaker and Hitchcock and Disney (e.g. Fantasia), whose The Three Caballeros was another Good Neighbor musical released at the same time

Influenced by: though this was his first film in color, Berkeley’s long history with objectifying yet glorifying women is worth discussing, particularly as the scores of “Brazilian” female dancers are all as white as paper; Miranda’s “Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” wasn’t quite original to this film, although this took it to its campy extreme

Influenced: long considered a camp classic and a sort of gay totem, this also influenced ideas about Latina women

C16. Gentleman’s Agreement (Kazan, 1947)

C17. Home of the Brave (Robson, 1949)

C18. Border Incident (Mann, 1950)

C19. The Young Lovers (Never Fear) (Lupino, 1951)

C20. Broken Arrow (Dawes, 1950)

C21. Glen or Glenda (Wood, 1953)

C22. The Salt of the Earth (Biberman, 1954)

C23. Carmen Jones (Preminger, 1954)

C24. The King and I (Lang, 1956)

C25. Tea and Sympathy (Minnelli, 1956)

C26. Sayonara (Logan, 1957)

C27. The Defiant Ones (Kramer, 1958)

C28. A Raisin in the Sun (Petrie, 1961)

C29. Flower Drum Song (Koster, 1961)

C30. The Children’s Hour (Wyler, 1961)

C31. The Miracle Worker (Penn, 1962)

C32. Cheyenne Autumn (Ford, 1964)

C33. The Pawnbroker (Lumet, 1965)

C34. Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968)

C35. The Boys in the Band (Friedkin, 1970)

C36. Cotton Comes to Harlem (Davis, 1970)

C37. Little Big Man (Penn, 1970)

C38. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song (Van Peebles, 1971)

C39. Coffy (Hill, 1973)

C40. Enter the Dragon (Clouse, 1973)

C41. Blazing Saddles (Brooks, 1974)

C42. Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet, 1975)

C43. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975)

C44. Up in Smoke (Adler, 1978)

C45. Stir Crazy (Poitier, 1980)

C46. 9 to 5 (Higgins, 1980)

C47. Zoot Suit (Valdez, 1981)

C48. Chan is Missing (Wang, 1982)

C49. El Norte (Nava, 1983)

C50. Yentl (Streisand, 1983)

C51. Desert Hearts (Dietch, 1985)

C52. The Color Purple (Spielberg, 1985)

C53. Aliens (Cameron, 1986)

C54. She’s Gotta Have It (Lee, 1986)

C55. Children of a Lesser God (Haines, 1986)

C56. Stand and Deliver (Menendez, 1988)

C57. Hairspray (Waters, 1988)

C58. Coming to America (Landis, 1988)

C59. Rain Man (Levinson, 1988)

C60. Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1991)

C61. My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant, 1991)

C62. Thelma and Louise (Scott, 1991)

C63. Boyz N Tha Hood (Singleton, 1991)

C64. Mississippi Masala (Nair, 1992)

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

C66. Malcolm X (Lee, 1992)

C67. The Joy Luck Club (Wang, 1993)

C68. Philadelphia (Demme, 1993)

C69. Pocahontas (Gabriel and Goldberg, 1995)

C70. Waiting to Exhale (Whitaker, 1995)

C71. The Watermelon Woman (Dunye, 1996)

C72. The Birdcage (Nichols, 1996)

C73. Selena (Nava, 1997)

C74. Smoke Signals (Eyre, 1998)

C75. Boys Don’t Cry (Peirce, 1999)

C76. Love and Basketball (Prince-Bythewood, 2001)

C77. Ali (Mann, 2001)

C78. Better Luck Tomorrow (Lin, 2002)

C79. Real Women Have Curves (Cardoso, 2002)

C80. Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (Leiner, 2004)

C81. Brokeback Mountain (Lee, 2005)

C82. The New World (Malick, 2005)

C83. Dreamgirls (Condon, 2006)

C84. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2009)

C85. Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail (Perry, 2009)

C86. The Princess and the Frog (Clements and Musker, 2009)

C87. The Kids are All Right (Cholodenko, 2010)

C88. Machete (Maniquis and Rodriguez, 2010)

C89. The Hunger Games (Ross, 2012)

C90. Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012)

C91. Fruitvale Station (Coogler, 2013)

C92. 12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2013)

C93. Selma (Duvernay, 2014)

C94. Tangerine (Baker, 2015)

C95. Furious 7 (Wan, 2015)

C96. Moana (Clements and Musker, 2016)

C97. Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017)

C98. Black Panther (Cooler, 2018)

C99. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)

C100: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Rothman, Ramsey, Persichetti, 2018)

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