Film pickers failed to do the right thing List of top movies omits many deserving minority artists

June 21, 1998|By Richard Roeper

Denzel Washington doesn't matter.

Spike Lee didn't make the cut.

Danny Glover, Cicely Tyson, Eddie Murphy, Edward James Olmos, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Ossie Davis, Paul Robeson -- nowhere to be found.

After its contest to promote the first 100 years of filmmaking, The American Film Institute announced a list of the 100 greatest American movies. Newsweek is devoting a special issue to the results, which were broadcast Tuesday by CBS-TV.

This roster of the "100 best I" reminds me a lot of the 1927 Yankees: undeniably filled with Hall of Fame entries, unquestionably deserving of such a lofty reputation -- and white.

Very white.

Not only does the list fail to include even a single film from a black director, but only a handful of the movies on the much-hyped list feature minorities of any kind in supporting roles, much less leading parts.

Perhaps we should be sending kudos to the AFI for not bowing to any politically correct pressure to present a more diverse list.

Perhaps we should say this ranking -- whose criteria for winning are said to include box--office sales, critical acclaim and historical significance -- is of great benefit to the cause of minorities in films. For sure, it illustrates just how few opportunities have existed for blacks, Latinos and Asian--Americans behind and in front of the camera.

Or maybe we should be wondering how the AFI could put together such a collection and all but ignore any nonwhite actors or directors, with only a few exceptions.

Let's see. There's Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (No. 99). He was a stand-up guy (although I have to say I don't know what this horribly dated, condescendingly cutesy period piece is even doing on the list. Did anyone who voted for the movie see it recently? It has not aged well, either as a piece of social commentary or an alleged comedy.)

Sharing screen time with Bruce Willis and John Travolta, among others, Samuel L. Jackson did have a prominent role in the crackling "Pulp Fiction," which clocked in at No. 95. As a hit man struggling to walk the righteous path, Jackson was probably the most sympathetic character in a movie filled with killers, druggies, thugs and thieves.

But that's about it, as far as main characters go. I don't think we want to count Al Jolson wearing blackface in "The Jazz Singer," do we?

Same goes for "West Side Story." Sure, Hispanics were in the cast -- but there was also Natalie Wood as Maria. Try to watch that in 1998 without wincing.

A few other minority performances are worth noting in the films considered to be the best America has produced.

Brock Peters was dignity personified as the man wrongly accused of rape in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Mykelti Williamson was memorably sympathetic in "Forrest Gump."

Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of the lovable maid in "Gone With the Wind."

And a number of Native American actors had parts in "Dances With Wolves" -- though Dances With Wolves' love interest, Stands With a Fist, was played by Mary McDonnell, who sounds and looks a lot more Irish than Sioux to me.

Beyond these parts, we're talking about a sea of white faces, with a few less-than-heroic minorities here and there, such as the guy named "Spearchucker" in "MASH," the "Yes, sir, Mr. Rick" piano player in "Casablanca," the villagers in "King Kong" and the villains in "Birth of a Nation."

Apparently, ballots went to prominent American critics, directors, screenwriters and even, though the AFI hasn't revealed whether they voted or not, President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

It's amazing to me that the 1,500 voters couldn't find a few more examples of films with minorities in leading roles, such as "A Raisin in the Sun," "Stand and Deliver," "Glory," "Philadelphia," "Boyz N the Hood" and "Menace 2 Society."

And lest you think such a tight list of 100 left no room for any or all of the aforementioned, I'll give you a quick roster of some of the overrated films that could have been dropped:

"Dr. Strangelove" (No. 26 on the list)

"MASH" (56)

"Tootsie" (62)

"The Wild Bunch" (80)

"Giant" (82)

"Easy Rider" (88)

"Unforgiven" (98)

At the very least, the voters should have done the right thing and put "Do the Right Thing" on the list. Not only does it belong in the top 100, it should be in the Top 10 -- perhaps at No. 7, in place of "The Graduate."

Richard Roeper is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. He has written for TV Guide, Spy, Playboy, Chicago magazine and many other publications, and has appeared as a guest on "Nightline" and "Oprah." This article was distributed by New York Times Special Features.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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