August 17, 2017

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On the Screen | Black History Month

 

Perhaps most audiences will know of the exploits of four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens. In the recently released, in-depth documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice (Tugg Educational; Gr 5 Up), Owens shares the spotlight with other African Americans who were part of the American contingency to the infamous Berlin Games of 1936.

He and his 17 teammates are among the portraits of real-life trailblazers that have been the subjects of DVDs reviewed by SLJ in 2016. In addition to sports, these individuals come from the worlds of music, dance, and politics. The selections below will give a boost to curricula and offer a varied range of subject matter year round. They offer tie-ins to early language arts learning (some, with the read-long option), and more than a few of these programs will come to the aid of report writers, including the aforementioned Olympic Pride.

Lucid and eye-opening, that film makes abundant use of archival sources as well as interviews with the children (and a spouse) of these champion athletes, all of whom help to bring the events of 80 years ago to the present day. Among the 18 African American members of the American delegation profiled here is the future congressional representative from Illinois, sprinter Ralph Metcalfe. (The athletes could compete and flourish in the noncontact, and therefore not segregated, sport of track-and-field.)

Director Deborah Riley Draper’s film offers a wider look behind the games than the recent PBS documentary The Nazi Games: Berlin 1936, delivering more detail on the movement to boycott the games (the NAACP didn’t not want the 18 athletes to go, to name one example). It also features an interview with the sole Jewish competitor on the German team, Gretel Bergmann (now 102 years old); she was removed from the team before she could compete. The two female African American athletes, Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett, also did not have an opportunity to run for the gold. Pickett broke her foot, and Stokes was pulled from the team to make room for a slower, Caucasian runner. As an example where sports and politics collide, this film a strong choice and adaptable for classroom use.

dvd-jackie-robinson

Photo credit: PBS

Among the members of the 1936 American Olympic delegation was Mack Robinson, older brother to Jackie Robinson, who is given an expansive, four-hour Ken Burns–treatment in the life and times of Jackie Robinson (PBS; Gr 6 Up). It follows the independent-minded second baseman on and off the field and before and after he broke the baseball’s “color barrier” in 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers. As School Library Journal‘s reviewer noted, the film is a great choice for sports fans and may hold particular appeal for students “resistant to more traditional approaches to history and social studies.”

Roughly a decade later during the height of the civil rights movement, Fannie Lou Hamer emerged as a force to be reckoned with as an activist working against segregation and for voting rights. She’s the subject of two selections.

dvd-voice-of-freedom-cvThe DVD of Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer (Dreamscape; Gr 4-8) adapts Carole Boston Weatherford’s picture book biography with simple animation of Ekua Holmes’s artwork. Weatherford’s poetic prose packs in a thorough biography. One of 20 children and a field hand, Hamer had for years had tried to register to vote in her rural Mississippi county, and in her 40s found her voice as an activist. Though the mood is celebratory, the text doesn’t hold back on the discrimination or violence Hamer experienced, recounting the beatings she received at the hands of law enforcement.

Viewers have the opportunity to witness Hamer, an eloquent and natural speaker and singer, and her oratory skills in action in the compact, 26-minute documentary This Little Light of Mine: The Legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer (Alexander Street; Gr 9 Up), named for her signature spiritual anthem. Rich with archival clips, the film centers on her attempt to become a credential delegate to the 1964 Democratic Convention, which lead to a behind-the-scenes showdown between her and the Democratic Party. This selection will complement other material related to Freedom Summer and to the civil rights era.

For a change of focus and tempo, in more ways than one, a double-feature of sorts revels in the sounds of the Big Easy through two music biographies. Based on Lesa Cline-Ransome’s lyrical picture book bio, Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong (Dreamscape; K-Gr 3) emphasizes jazz innovator Armstrong’s impoverished New Orleans childhood, including a stint at the Color Waif’s Home for Boys after a run-in with police. There, he excelled as a musician and became a professional during his teens. With an accompanying musical soundtrack, this brief but buoyant work serves as a catchy introduction to jazz and to the ragtime-to-riches life of a virtuoso.

The city’s musical legacy is fully felt in today in Trombone Shorty (Dreamscape; Gr 1-4), from the self-titled autobiographical picture book. Grammy-nominated artist, also known as Troy Andrews, grew up in the neighborhood of Tremé, picked up a trombone as a young child, and began leading a band by age six. Bryan Collier’s bold illustrations capture the pint-size prodigy holding his giant, towering trombone. Growing up surrounded by jazz, Andrews has formed his own sound. As he writes (narrated by a congenial Arnell Powell), “Different styles combined to make my own musical gumbo.”

dvd-ballerinas-tale

IFC Films

Another modern-day role model reminds viewers that there are still roads to forge. After all, it was only in 2015 when Misty Copeland was promoted as the first principal dancer in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Company. The fly-on-the-wall documentary A Ballerina’s Tale (IFC Films; Gr 7 Up) provides a warts-and-all look at the life at the barre: the long hours of rehearsing, the physical injuries, and the discipline necessary for a career. And in Copeland’s case, she was often one of the few African Americans (if any) in ballet class or productions. It’s noteworthy that her mentors, former lead dancers, have helped paved the way for her, offering a support system during her rising success. This is a solid choice for collections that own Copeland’s memoir Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina Young Readers Edition.

Productions discussed in the article:

A Ballerina’s Tale. 84 min. Dist. by IFC Films. 2016. $24.98. UPC 030306944999. Blu-ray $29.98. UPC 0030306196794.

Jackie Robinson. 240 min. Dist. by PBS. 2016. $24.99. ISBN 9781627896184.

Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong. 16 min. Dist. by Dreamscape. 2016. $38.99. ISBN 9781520044224.

Only Pride, American Prejudice. 81 min. Dist. by Tugg Educational. 2016. $75. ISBN unavail.

This Little Light of Mine: The Legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer. 26 min. Dist. by Alexander Street. 2015. $125. ISBN unavail.

Trombone Shorty. 14 min. Dist. by Dreamscape. 2016. $38.99. ISBN 9781520014548.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer. 34 min. Dist. by Dreamscape. 2016. $38.99. ISBN 9781520016788.

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Kent Turner About Kent Turner

Kent Turner (kturner@mediasourceinc.com) edits SLJ's DVD reviews and is the editor of Film-Forward.com

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