This category could easily be dominated by To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck, Gandhi with Ben Kingsley, or just about any film Sidney Poitier ever appeared in, so I have opted for some more obscure choices. Most of these are little-known gems that I hope you are able to find. Ryan Reynolds (above) in Ordinary Magic
1. A Dry White Season (1989) with Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon, Jurgen Prochnow, Zakes Mokae, Rowen Elmes, and Marlon Brando: This story takes place before the end of apartheid, and it shows how information of the evils of apartheid had to be smuggled out of South Africa to gain the world’s attention. Donald Sutherland plays a complacent, naïve prep school teacher who is shocked into a social consciousness when his Black gardener and the gardener’s son both disappear while in the hands of the authorities. Marlon Brando makes a brief, dynamic appearance as the lawyer approached by Mr. Sutherland. The lawyer tries to explain to him the futility of hoping for justice: In South Africa, the law and justice “are not even on speaking terms.” Young Rowen Elmes plays Sutherland’s son, who is beaten up at school because of opposition to his father’s investigations and activism. Nevertheless, the son was a friend of the gardener’s son and joins his father in helping to hide the evidence that has been accumulated to keep it from being found and destroyed by the police. Sutherland’s wife and daughter betray them, but he and his son realize it. So how can they deliver the evidence to their Black contact (Zakes Mokae) and get it out of the country so it can be made public by the media?
2. Five Corners (1988) with Jodie Foster, Tim Robbins, Todd Graff, and John Turturro: Considering this film’s great cast, it’s surprising it is so little-known. Director Tony Bill has put together what should be a cult classic. The locale is an area of the Bronx in 1964. The ensemble cast of characters is eclectic, to say the least: Linda (Ms. Foster) was nearly raped by Heinz (Mr. Turturro); Jamie (Mr. Graff) loves Linda and walks with a limp because of a busted hip resulting from his attempt to rescue Linda from Heinz; Harry (Mr. Robbins) is the one who saved Linda from Heinz but is now non-violent and eager to join the Freedom Fighters in Mississippi; and Heinz, a complete nutcase, is now out of jail, back in the neighborhood, and wants Linda to meet him in the park at midnight! When Heinz abducts Linda, who will rescue her? Harry, who “has gone Gandhi”? Jamie, who is lame? “Big Foot,” the cop? The Buddha, Harry’s St. Bernard? Or Indians, who apparently may still reside in the Bronx?
Two favorite scenes: (1) An algebra teacher, who uses a rubber stamp to mark failures on his students’ papers, gets an arrow in his back on his way to school; (2) Two young couples get their kicks riding on top of two elevators. What do these two scenes have to do with the rest of the movie? This is not your routine movie, so be prepared for something different.
3. Gunman’s Walk (1958) with Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, James Darren, and Kathryn Grant: This is among those really great westerns made in the fifties, but, for some reason, very few people know about it. It is concerned with some rather important issues: discrimination, justice, and non-violence. Van Heflin, excellent as always, plays Lee Hackett, whose huge ranch was earned before the West was tamed and who still likes to wear his gun. Lee’s two sons couldn’t be less alike: Ed (Tab Hunter) also wears a gun and wants to be faster than his father. Davy (James Darren) never wears one and even falls in love with a half-breed Sioux, Clee Chouard. Clee is played by Kathyrn Grant – this movie was made before we got accustomed to seeing Native Americans playing Native Americans in key roles. Tab Hunter turns in an interesting performance playing the amoral Ed. He even sings “I’m a runaway,” the tune you hear throughout the movie. You want to like Ed, but he makes it impossible. Ed is responsible for the needless death of Clee’s brother. The judge weighs the testimony of two Indian eyewitnesses against that of one lying white man and dismisses the case. Ed eventually even nearly kills the liar who saved him! This time the cold-blooded shooting was seen by too many townspeople. When the sheriff arrested him, Ed mocked him for worrying about what he might do. The sheriff (Robert F. Simon) said, “Son, I stopped worrying about you ten minutes ago when I went after my shotgun.” Tragically, Ed murders an unarmed deputy and breaks out of jail. Only then does Lee Hackett realize that he is ultimately responsible for his son’s behavior and only he can end his son’s violence. This is a good one.
4. Ordinary Magic (1993) with Ryan Reynolds, Glenne Headly, David Fox, Heath Lambert, Joe Roncetti, Cara Pifko, and Paul Anka: In his first screen role, Ryan Reynolds plays the recently orphaned 15-year-old Ganesh/Jeffrey. Raised by his late father in India, he has to adjust to life in Paris, Ontario, in Canada. His manner of speaking and his practice of yoga limit his acceptance in the small town to only the most liberal minded, like the son of the mayor – winningly played by young Joe Roncetti. Things start getting even more complicated when Jeffrey and his aunt learn that their ancestral home is being appropriated by the city through the right of eminent domain. The city has teamed with a veteran singer-land developer named Joey Dean to develop a major resort. Paul Anka, the former teen heartthrob of the fifties and sixties, is splendid as the unscrupulous Joey Dean. Don’t miss the name of Mr. Dean’s yacht and the name on his car’s front license plate! Jeffrey’s father (David Fox) had been an anti-Vietnam War activist and had been a follower of Gandhi’s philosophy in India. Jeffrey convinces his aunt they can save the house by using a non-violent method he learned from his father: Satyagraha. They refuse to leave the house and begin a fast, drinking only water and bicarbonate soda. Sympathizers begin to join them on their porch. Even the mayor (Heath Lambert) begins to have second thoughts as he reflects that he and Jeffrey’s father had been best friends: “We were going to change the world.” A friend (the late writer Joe Fisher) and I drove all around Paris and Guelph, Ontario, trying to find the house where this was filmed, but we never found it. Needless to say, this is a personal favorite.
5. Route 66: Good Night, Sweet Blues (TV Series 1961) with George Maharis and Martin Milner; with guests Ethel Waters, Juano Hernandez, and Bill Gunn: Buz Murdoch and Tod Stiles are leaving Pittsburgh in their Corvette convertible and are run off the road by an out-of-control car driven by a heart attack victim. The great Ethel Waters plays former singer Jenny Henderson, who realizes she is going to die and has one last wish: She wants the six members of the jazz band she sang with when she was in her late teens to come to her bedside for one last performance. Tod and Buz agree to fan out across the USA to bring them together again. Two years before Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and three years before passage of the Civil Rights Act, this episode utilized a nearly all-Black cast and depicted them as respected doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. A few unforgettable scenes: Tod gets thrown out of a bar just for asking for Hank Plummer (Bill Gunn). Buz finds “Lover” Brown (jazz drummer Jo Jones) living in a “mansion;” Buz purchases “King’s” (Juano Hernandez) trombone from a pawn shop, leaves it at “King’s” front door, which is right on the sidewalk in a rundown neighborhood – and it isn’t stolen; Ethel Waters and Bill Gunn sing the title song (she and Jo Jones sing it again at the end) – absolutely wonderful!
6. The Hogan Family: Strangers on a Train (TV Series 1989) Sandy Duncan, Josh Taylor, Jason Bateman, Jeremy Licht, and Danny Ponce; with guests Zakes Mokae and Erik Moses: This episode actually was a specific tribute for Martin Luther King
Day. One of Sandy’s old professors (Zakes Mokae) comes to dinner and awakens the whole family to the injustice of apartheid with his personal experiences in South Africa. This leads Willie (Danny Ponce) to want to attend a midnight candlelight vigil to protest apartheid. But since the vigil is in downtown Chicago and Willie has school the next morning, his father (Josh Taylor) refuses to let him go. When Willie decides to sneak out and go anyway, his brother Mark (Jeremy Licht) insists on not letting him go alone. So here they are: lost, terrified, on an el, and three, slightly older, tough-looking Blacks get on board! What do they do? Occasionally, even TV sitcoms have something to say.
by David Offutt, January 2006 (re-edited December 2009)