Ralph Richardson’s Top 50 African American films of All Time

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#1 This piece was original published 9/10/13

“Dearly beloved We are gathered here today 2 get through this thing called life.

Deep in the summer of 1984, a year of bank failures, high unemployment, and an actor-turned-president who told the poor to get by on government cheese, a rock/funk musical like no other was born. One Saturday afternoon, my brother and I pulled on our shell top Adidas and two-tone Lee jeans to join a few friends and push our way through the blanket of humidity that sat on the Philadelphia smog. We all had to go see that mad androgynous genius named Prince. Even $2 tickets were too high back then, so we put our nickels together to pay for one person to get in and open the fire exit door for the rest of us to sneak through the back. High off the scent of our own youth, we used the rest of our money to grab a bucket of popcorn that we shared between us once we found a row of seats in the air-conditioned darkness. As the opening credits began to roll, the music blared, and we high-fived our own power for having tricked the grown-ups one more time.

What we saw that afternoon blew us away. Prince rocked us to a whole new reality, and it didn’t matter if you were white or black or Latin. You just had to be part of the new generation, Generation X — the generation that would, decades later, convince everyone that it was time for America’s first bi-racial president.

Purple Rain did more than explode Prince and his Revolution into the mainstream; it presented a unique vision of Black life, challenging traditional, mainstream preconceived ideas regarding the aesthetic that RUN DMC repped,



or the prepped out, Izod look, complete with Member’s Only jackets. Purple Rain showed the nation a totally different world. A brave new world. A New Wave new world. It was a tribe of folk from different cultures and background mixing and colliding to usher in a new aesthetic, a new language, a new art. The art expressed in each frame of film presented a vision of American life few suburban and rural audiences in the still relatively segregated 1980s had ever seen. From the multiplex nearest their suburban enclaves, suburbanites watched people of color command leading roles with style. Purple Rain presented everyday urban life before the term Urban Culture existed.

As artists, the characters in Purple Rain fed that mixed multitude culture, but culture rarely feeds the artist back, so they were broke. They embodied real life in economic struggle, and they did it using that thing unique to Black culture: the ability to make a way out of no way — and do it with swag.

Purple Rain flipped black film on its head. While the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s confronted race and poverty with tropes that inevitably included the neighborhood pimp, the local revolutionary, and “whitey” starring as “The Man,” Purple Rain didn’t have to bother with explicit challenges to race, because Prince is Race. Born of a Black father and a white mother, Prince implicitly symbolizes the real America by dismantling the myth of a race-pure America.



And because Purple Rain doesn’t discuss race, the screenplay frees up each character to simply be fly — and make this musical just about the coolest teen angst film on the planet. It’s like a John Hughes film loaded with French lace, leather, and love. Just like other great teen rebel films, Purple Rain deals with contention within the home, domestic violence, and the deconstruction of the myth of marriage as a stable institution.

Written and directed by Albert Magnoli, and co-written by William Blinn, Albert Magnoli, and an uncredited Prince Rogers Nelson, this semi-biographical movie is about “The Kid” (Prince), a young, talented, and rebellious Minneapolis musician that comes from a violent, drunken home. The Kid meets a singer named Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), a fish out of water, who comes to the big city with big dreams, a fly ass leather outfit, and no money. The plot centers on The Kid trying not to repeat the pattern of his abusive, alcoholic father, played with stunning power by Clarence Williams III(best known for his role as Lincoln Hayes on TV’s The Mod Squad). The Kid also needs to keep his band together and, unlike his father, make it big. Complicating matters is his main rival, Morris Day, who has to be the coolest cat in cinematic history to sport a do-rag while vacuuming his own apartment.



If Prince is the king of that kinetic new wave energy that grew out of the working class, Morris is the forerunner of the bling and narcissism that would hit in the 1990s. Morris is that smooth talking brotha who can talk a woman out of her clothes and make a grown man walk on stage with a mirror and hold it up just so Morris can see how coooool he is.

While the stage is the place where The Kid works out his personal demons and reveals his tortured soul, Morris uses the stage to create a character that doesn’t have the insecurity that his alter ego does. But The Kid is trying to make it financially, too, and escape from his dysfunctional working-class home. One of the most appealing aspects of Purple Rain is the powerful way it presents domestic violence. Clarence Williams III haunts The Kid, and the audience, with his searing, blood-shot gaze.



While hyper-masculine expressions of Black male bravado too often leave the abuser triumphant in a “pimps up hoes down” stance, Purple Rain expresses a truth: The abuser is dying. Crumpled, trembling, and, later in the film, with a gun aimed at his own temple, The Kid’s father’s violence leaves him weaker and weaker with each back-hand slap across his wife’s face. By the end of the film, the audience might not be convinced that The Kid’s parents will miraculously stop the cycle of violent physical assault in their home, but they do get there’s nothing glamorous, powerful, or pretty about relationship violence. And everyone in the theater stopped chomping on popcorn, riveted by Clarence Williams III’s performance, to get it. While Morris and Jerome may emerge as a twisted kind of he-man victor after dumping one of Morris’ girlfriends into an alley garbage dumpster in the beginning of the film, even The Kid seems to get that he needs to work on and heal his own inherited cycle of violence and rage to avoid his father’s fate — the degradation of his talent, potential, and indeed his very soul. For a popcorn movie, Purple Raindevelops women characters into much more than mere victims or trophies. While women are often nearly naked in much of Purple Rain,



male characters have a hard time exploiting them. Wendy and Lisa insist on creating a sacred circle of female-dominated collaboration and, through a mutually supported process, create the signature song of the film. Morris’ girl group members adjust hips, elbows, faces, and attitudes to communicate their resistance to his need to control their talent — a move similar to The Kid’s before he sees the light and lets Wendy and Lisa shine. Even the girl dumped in the alley garbage can, though muted by Jerome’s physical assault, pops up again and manages to threaten future retribution with an unwavering glare. That she is white and both Morris and Jerome are Black is significant, too. Few American films feature Black male sexual conquests of white women. In Purple Rain, there’s plenty of interracial desire. A white woman yearns to be with The Kid and seems to be the only woman truly in competition with Apollonia to win The Kid’s heart throughout the film. The Kid’s mother may be Latina or a light-skinned Black woman or Greek, and Apollonia self-identifies as Creole when she tells The Kid she comes from Louisiana and appears ambiguously raced, too.

Certainly these images of light-skinned Black women render the racial and gender dynamics of the film problematic. Intra-racial conflict over the centuries, instigated by the privileging of light-skinned slaves in both the north and the south, is not resolved when there is nary a dark-skinned sister rocking the mic at First Avenue nightclub, much less one of the male character’s love jones.

What is significant, however, is that there was no protest of the obvious sexual consumption of white women by Black men in Prince’s version of Minneapolis life. One reason the issue of race never explicitly comes up in the film may be that all the characters, across the racial spectrum, come from the same New Wave tribe, as their clothes clearly identify them as members of the coolest crew around.

Indeed, the audience at First Avenue, all multicultural



and young and hip, expresses the same intense dedication to the body as art. With asymmetrical cuts, wet and wild make-up, and rip-gloved hands finger poppin’ in rhythm, even the extras say cool just by swaying to the music. In the opening sequence, Apollonia skips out



on a cab fare, hands over a wad of cash for a room in a roach motel, and gazes out at First Avenue, seeking all kinds of possibilities, including gainful employment. She does it in a slick black bustier and cape ensemble that predated both Madonna’s Fall 1984 Like a Virgin bustier and lace album cover and everyone in 1999’s The Matrix.



Despite her poverty, Apollonia hocks her own jewelry and eventually buys The Kid a guitar to express her love. It is a fine gift, a way for him to look even more powerful as he wails like a bluesmen unafraid to sing of vulnerability, loss, or sex. The purchase of the guitar means even more given Apollonia’s starving-artist status. While the guitar is hot and the clothes super sexy, no one in Purple Rain is blinged out. That era, the era of bling and excess and materialism, was just waiting in the next decade to sap some of the soul from Black music.

The 1990s featured enough shiny videos with gyrating hips to make struggling and successful musicians alike skittish, fearful, and mean. The banter and competition between Prince’s band and Morris’ band in 1984’s Purple Rain would have been an all-out turf war just over a decade later. In Purple Rain, musicians battled the way Black musicians have for centuries, in the music itself.

By the 1990s, two of the top five Hip Hop artists of all time, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, would be gunned down. In Purple Rain, the beef stays where it belongs, in context and onstage. While even the sneakers in the late 1980s and 1990s would cost upwards of $200 and cause more than one Black man in America to be shot and killed for not giving them up to a gun-toting teenager that looks just like him, the clothes in Purple Rain could be thrift shop vintage, pulled from a hip grandparent’s closet, or homemade. There was no shame in an updated hand-me-down look. That cape Apollonia rocks could have cost $2 at a



local costume shop, and Morris’ do-rag is free of crystals, diamonds, or any other shiny stub. Even Billy Sparks, the First Avenue nightclub owner and the only character to rock track suits and a perm yet still look around the way fly, is platinum-free. In many ways, the New Wave look in Purple Rain is more authentic than the all about the benjamins look BET videos would later become. Black culture and Black artists have traditionally been in and of the community, accessible, real. With his frustrated father and abused mother, no one is realer than The Kid. No one is flyer than Prince Rogers Nelson either. The only rival to the throne where Prince commands the title “King of 80s Fashion” would be Michael Jackson, but most



would agree Prince wore his gear with more funk, more soul, and more swagger. What separates Prince from most musicians are his gender-blurring, androgynous sparkling genius, and the fluidity with which he goes in and out of the man / woman dynamic. During the whole film Prince, The Kid, is trying to grow to a man, trying to expel and resolve the sins of his father, trying to find out who he is through music and boy-meets-girl headaches and love. Purple Rain explores these deep psychological landscapes, yet they manage not to weigh the film down.

The movie idea was apparently developed by Prince during his “Triple Threat” tour. Initially the script was to be darker and more coherent. Prince intended to cast Vanity, leader of the girl group Vanity 6, but she left the group before filming began. Her role was initially offered to Jennifer Beals , who turned it down because she wanted to concentrate on college, before going to Apollonia Kotero, a virtual unknown at the time. Excluding Prince and his on-screen parents, almost every character in the movie is named after the actor who plays them.

Filmed almost entirely in Minneapolis, the film features many local landmarks, including the Crystal Court of the IDS Center (also shown in segments of the opening credits to The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and the legendary First Avenue nightclub.

This balls-to-the-walls musical drama is arguably the best rock/opera ever. Anchored by one of the best albums of all time (Time magazine ranked it 15th greatest album), the Purple Rain soundtrack went on to sell over 14 million albums. Prince and the Revolution won an Oscar for Best Original Song Score: Purple Rain. The film grossed over $80 million. If any popcorn/musical film deserves top 50 ranking, it’s this one.

“Hey, look me over Tell me do U like what U see? Hey, I ain’t got no money But honey, I’m rich on personality Hey, check it all out Baby, I know what it’s all about Before the night is through U will see my point of view Even if I have 2 scream and shoutOh baby, I’m a star!



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