A bittersweet look back at multi-talented Ossie Davis

With Van Peebles, Parks, he pioneered black filmmaking

February 13, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

With the passing of a multitalented artist and public figure like Ossie Davis, it's tempting to recall his most solemn accomplishments as an orator, an activist, a spokesman for the power of film and theater, a friend to Martin Luther King Jr. and eulogist of Malcolm X.

But Davis was a virile and complex creative force who did sublime, engaging work as a popular entertainer. Whether acting in a Western called The Scalphunters (1968) or directing that milestone in soul cinema, Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Davis conveyed the exuberance of a free and optimistic man.

Davis the filmmaker occupies the center of tonight's Black STARZ premiere, Unstoppable: A Conversation with Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, and Ossie Davis. Van Peebles, of course, is the maverick who made the first independent black blockbuster, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). Parks is the famed Life magazine photographer and writer who became mainstream Hollywood's first black director with the film of his autobiographical novel The Learning Tree (1969), then broke out with the uptown machismo of the black private-eye movie Shaft (1971).

Both personally and professionally, the interviewer, Warrington Hudlin, sparks more with the irreverent Van Peebles and the glamorous Parks than the sage, statesmanlike Davis. After all, Hudlin was an impressionable kid when Shaft and Sweetback produced the kind of macho fantasy figures irresistible to schoolboys.

But every time the conversation loses focus or momentum, Davis picks up the slack. He's the one who pins down his puckish colleague Van Peebles as "the spirit of Brer Rabbit," able "to avoid logic and common sense and still show up." It's Davis who most forcefully gives Parks credit for breaking the creative color barrier in Hollywood and proving the vitality of the untapped African-American audience. And it's Davis who strikes the true Ralph Ellison note when he says that as African-American movie artists re-invent themselves, they'll change American cinema as much as African-American musicians changed American music.

'Deep creative spirit'

Davis says there are profound reasons why black directors haven't done it yet: slavery took away their ancestral culture and languages, so it's natural that blacks would excel in non-verbal arts like music and dance. But right at the start he declares that he has "faith and expectations." He knows those who come after him will succeed as long as they follow the "deep creative spirit" that says, "I've got to do that thing that I was meant to do."

Throughout, Davis is full of surprises. He mocks the self-congratulation that swept through Hollywood liberal circles after the 1961 film A Raisin in the Sun, saying it was as if with that one black picture "they'd done their job."

He's modest, too. When Hudlin asks his guests what women have meant to them, Davis doesn't mention that, when Shaft and Sweetback were treating actresses as male lust objects, he was directing Black Girl (1972) which portrayed African-American women pulled between independence and hand-me-down patterns of behavior.

Even Davis' Cotton Comes to Harlem had more emotional oomph to it than Parks' or Van Peebles' flashier films. Davis got juicy performances out of Calvin Lockhart as a duplicitous black preacher and Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques as police detectives who see through his back-to-Africa con.

Aiming for hardboiled slapstick, Davis didn't always slip on just the right banana peel. But the movie's racial humor is unembarrassed and free-swinging. And Davis' love for women made the scenes with three alluring comediennes, Judy Pace, Emily Yancy and Mabel Robinson, sexy and knockabout hilarious.

In his early prime, Davis was best known for writing and starring in Purlie Victorious, a play that burlesqued Southern melodrama as a way of lampooning racism. Davis played the title character, another grasping preacher, both on stage and in the 1963 movie, retitled Gone Are the Days. The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann praised his "ringing, swinging exhortations" and concluded, "Davis and company deserved a more resourceful director" than the anonymous Nicholas Webster. Davis became one.

Rising to the occasion

Davis was also, always, a resourceful and charismatic actor: In Sidney Lumet's The Hill (1965), as a West Indian soldier sentenced to a British military prison in the Libyan desert during World War II, he absorbs the racist abuse of his commandant, then vents his contempt and frustration in an unforgettable "mad" scene.

He matched up with Burt Lancaster as well as Kirk Douglas ever did in Sydney Pollack's The Scalphunters, as an educated runaway slave given to a grizzled trapper by Indians. The two share one of the most satisfying funny-tough fight scenes in buddy movies or Westerns when they tangle in the mud and emerge equally mud-colored.

Memories like that one cushion the pain of hearing Davis tell Hudlin and his peers, "I can't wait to be a black in the 21st century." After watching Unstoppable, you'll mourn both the man and his rich and exciting sensibility.

Unstoppable

When: Tonight at 8

Where: The Black STARZ! Channel on Comcast Digital

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