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African American Authors Who Changed The Big Screen

February 18, 2020

These artful writings transcended the page to become big screen icons.

Black and African American artists and authors have shaped the course of our culture and the life of the country. We've selected five authors whose work has transcended the page to become icons of the screen. Through artful storytelling and compelling characters, these authors brought a new lens to how stories are told on film and forever changed the contemporary box-office.

Devil In A Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley (Starz)

“The newspapers was goin' on and on about the city elections, like they was really gonna change somebody's life. But my life had already changed when I lost my job three weeks before."

In 1990, first-time author Walter Mosely introduced us to Ezekial “Easy" Rawlins, WWII veteran and factory-worker turned reluctant detective, navigating crime and punishment in 1940s Los Angeles. The novel was a commercial and critical success, nominated for and winning several genre awards and launching a series that now spans two decades and 14 novels. Denzel Washington brought Easy to life in the 1995 film, rich with details of 1940s Los Angeles, from costumes, cars, to social sensibilities. We meet Easy two months behind in his mortgage, after being unfairly laid-off from a defense plant. To keep his house and stay afloat, Easy accepts an unconventional day job: find the paramour of a wealthy local politician. The quick questioning turns into a hard-boiled search for the elusive Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beales), which leads to intrigue and murder. The suspense increases when his childhood friend from Texas, Mouse (Don Cheadle), appears and the duo are hot on the trail of killers, corruption, and a Devil In A Blue Dress.

If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin (Cox on Demand)

“Beale Street is a loud street. It is left to the reader to discern a meaning in the beatings of the drums."

First published in June 1974, James Baldwin crafted a searing and beautiful of Tish and Fonny, childhood friends whose romance is put to the test in racially-charged 1970s Harlem. When Fonny (Stephen James) is charged with a crime he did not commit, Tish (Kiki Layne) and her family demonstrate love in action as they fight to find justice for the man they all cherish. Regina King won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as Sharon, the matriarch who goes to extremes for her soon-to-be son-in-law. The novel was a landmark work for Baldwin, whose later-life novels specifically explored connection and love within African American families, which he saw as the fabric of the larger community. Director and writer Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) crafts a meticulously lush and nuanced love story that serves Baldwin's themes and sweeps viewers into the love and tragedy of Beale Street.

Fences, by August Wilson (Cox on Demand)

“Some build fences to keep people out… others build fences to keep people in."

Fences began life as a portion of August Wilson's ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle, which took the theatrical world by storm, winning the 1987 Pulitzer for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play. The personal-as-political family drama also swept the 2010 Tony Awards, landing the statue for Best Revival of a Play in 2010, and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis took Best Actor and Actress in a Play. The duo received as many accolades for the film version, also helmed by Washington. Created less than a decade after Beale Street's look at love within a family, Wilson's view on domestic life explores the generational trauma of disappointments and how the impact of familial and social discord can ripple through the decades, with deep personal consequences. The performances are a master class in finely-wrought, precision acting, keeping viewers in a powerful grip every step of the way.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (Cox on Demand)

“Yes, Celie, everything just wanna to be loved."

One of the most famous and successful novels of the 20th Century, The Color Purple received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award. Two years later, Steven Spielberg directed the now-iconic, Oscar-nominated film, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. Both the novel and film use dialogue, which Walker labels “folk speech" and was seen as a departure in literary circles, but key for Walker to honor her ancestors and document the lived experience and language of 1930s Georgia. Keeping close to the source material, the epic film spans five decades and explores the themes of the landmark novel: gender, class, race, liberation and the meaning of love. 

Waiting to Exhale, by Terry McMillan (Starz)

"I worry about if and when I'll ever find the right man, if I'll ever be able to exhale.

Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale was a '90s phenomenon — the novel sold 3 million copies by the time the movie was released, just three years after hitting bookshelves. The film was an immediate success — reaching number one opening weekend and landing as a cultural touchstone with the flick of that immortal cigarette. The stories of black female friendships and frailties had never been explored on the big screen with such — well, explosive — results. Director Forest Whitaker and the star-studded cast of Angela Bassett, Loretta Divine, Whitney Houston, and Lela Rochon created an enduring classic that changed the course of the modern box office by redefining what was considered a profitable mainstream movie. The success of the title paved the way for a generation of novels, movies and television shows centered around African-American women. And, for better or worse, twenty-five years later the life lessons of our four heroines still ring true: Everyone falls in love sometime, sometimes it's wrong, and sometimes it's right.

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly (Cox on Demand)

“There was virtually no aspect of twentieth-century defense technology that had not been touched by the hands and minds of female mathematicians."

The only non-fiction work on our list, Hidden Figures was such a hot property that the principal shooting of the film began long before the book was released and the movie premiere followed the book launch by only three months. Centered around three remarkable mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who were integral to the 1960s space race, yet their brilliant minds were hidden from the public narrative and recognition for over fifty years. Thanks to the successive triumphs of the novel and film, the once hidden figures became household names within a few short months, each receiving well-deserved acknowledgments. The projects signaled a pivotal change in the concept of whose stories deserve preserving and both the publishing and film industry have taken notice, finding more untold stories that have shaped our country.

Our compilation of authors bring vastly different approaches to the art of story across genres: from potboilers to “chick lit," literary sensations to literary accolades, all making great movies, which are available on Cox Contour TV

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