Carter G. Woodson, an American historian and journalist, had a vision of a celebration for the Negro History Week. Now, 93 years later, African-Americans are celebrating Black History. The stars are rising and they’ve given homage to their mothers, grandmothers, enslaved ancestors, and mentors.
Sunday at the 91st Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards Show, Regina King, Spike Lee, Ruth E. Carter, Hannah Beachler, and Mahershala Ali created characters, costumes, and stages showing the world that Black History is evolving. Storytellers are passionately retelling stories like James Baldwin, Dr. Don Shirley and the legacy of African women royalty. They turned new pages in history on the big screen. New creations of fictional, yet believable stories like a kingdom of Wakanda were called onto the stage jumping with elation and crying out for remembrance. They worked decades for their crafts and passionately realized their dreams. They walked away with a gold statue known as an “Oscar.”
Spike Lee likely left Morehouse College and NYC with dreams of becoming an independent filmmaker. He earned 83 credits as an acclaimed director for “School Daze” in 1988, “Do The Right Thing” in 1989, “Malcolm X,” in 1992, “4 Little Girls” in 1997 and more. But Sunday at the award presentation, Actor Samuel L. Jackson, another Morehouse graduate, called Lee to the stage with other writers to present the best-adapted screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman.” It is a comedic drama of Colorado Spring Police Detective Ron Stallworth (played by actor John David Washington) who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, a white hate group.
Lee wearing a purple suit – in memory of Prince – and gold sneakers – in memory of Rahim, a character in “Do The Right Thing” – jumped into Jackson’s arms. The 61-year-old Lee reached back to tell his story and Black History reading from a yellow legal pad. He refused to forget that people like him came to the United States enslaved from Africa to work day and night building this country.
His grandmother, a Spelman College graduate lived for a century. She saved 50 years of social security checks to pay for his undergraduate degree at Morehouse College and his NYC graduate degree so he could be a filmmaker.
Ruth E. Carter, a Springfield, Mass. native, and a Hampton University graduate, received first gigs from Lee as a costume designer at “School Daze,” “Malcolm X” and “Amistad.” She entered another chapter of Black History Sunday when she became the first African-American best costume designer for “Black Panther,” the historical box office superhero Marvel film and Wakanda, a new kingdom in Africa. “This has been a long time coming,” Carter said. “Spike Lee, thank you for my start.”
Carter spoke of her 97-year-old mother, who taught her how to value storytelling. “She’s my original superhero,’’ she said during her acceptance speech.
Hannah Beachler is the first African-American to win best production designer of “Black Panther.” She oversaw $30 million in art and employees that traveled the world so viewers could relate to Wakanda, the fictional country in Africa.
As those stories took the viewers of new heights, others seesawed back to 1950 and 1970s.
Regina King looked back at her tearful mother and Mahershala Ali remembered his grandmother too. They drilled them into their beliefs that God and their dreams could be realized.
King played in the adapted novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.” She became Sharon Rivers, the mother of Tish (Rivers’ daughter) who was having a child when her boyfriend was sent to prison for a wrongful charge of rape. Rivers went to Puerto Rico to pursue the woman to recant. Her powerful and passionate character made moviegoers understand the essence of James Baldwin’s novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
King started as a child star in 227, a television series. She evolved and showed us different characters, such as the family member of “Boyz n The Hood,” a sister in “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” and wives at “Jerry Maquire” (1996) and “Enemy of the State.”
Her momma taught her how to treat others and to work hard. “God is good, all the time,’’ she said during her acceptance.
Ali played Dr. Don Shirley, an international classical pianist who traveled to concerts through the Jim Crow era. He could spend the night in integrated hotels, motels, and restaurants. He followed “Green Book,” a historical document to find places to eat and sleep. Shirley’s Driver Tony Lip played by Virgo Mortensen, an uncouth Italian-American bouncer/ chauffeur flipped. Shirley and Lip learned about their differences in literacy, the dialects of the cultural ways, varied food, classical music, blues, and early rock n’ roll.
They became unlikely friends in “Green Book,” the best film of the year.
Tina A. Brown, M.F.A., is an author, independent journalist and a part-time adult education instructor at Savannah Technical College.