Take the power back: six scenes of black resistance on film

Black resistance to white oppression is rarely the subject matter of mainstream film, but there have been significant moments of defiance. From Sidney Poitier’s slap to the Bring It On cheerleaders’ ass-shaking eminence, here are the best examples of black stars fighting back

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Considering the long and bloody history of Europe’s colonial adventures in Africa there are still relatively few films that tell the story of black resistance to white oppression. Spectacular, blockbuster films (such as Zulu) that tell of larger battles are relatively rare and seldom told from the black point of view. More often, resistance is portrayed as a series of small victories in an overwhelmingly unfair conflict that has played over centuries, in a multitude of scenarios.
 
There are still very few films dealing with the black experience given a substantial release, which might explain why the subject of black resistance is rarely the subject matter. But here are six films that show black people taking a stand against racism.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

A murder mystery set in Mississippi, In the Heat of the Night sees Sidney Poitier, playing police lieutenant Virgil Tibbs, accused of a killing, before it’s resolved that he is, in fact, a police officer himself. He then goes on to help solve the case. Tibbs shows in no uncertain terms that he will not be disrespected on the grounds of his skin colour. The southern police chief, played by Rod Steiger, accosts him: “Virgil, that’s a funny name for a nigger boy that comes from Philadelphia, what do they call you up there?” “They call me Mr Tibbs!” Poitier retorts.

The “Mr Tibbs” scene is famous, but there is another scene in the movie that hits just as hard: when Tibbs is slapped by racist plantation owner Eric Endicott (Larry Gates), and quickly, and more forcefully, slaps him right back. “There was a time,’ Endicott tells Tibbs after the incident, “when I could have had you shot.”
 
In the Heat of the Night was based on the book by John Ball, but the slap wasn’t in the original text. Director Norman Jewison told the Guardian that he had Poitier, who had been a genuine victim of racial violence in the Deep South, practice the slap out on him before it was filmed. “A black man had never slapped a white man back in an American film. We broke that taboo,” he said.

48 Hrs. (1982)

You could call much of Eddie Murphy’s film career a resistance. It’s hard to think of any other black actor who managed to achieve what seemed like parity with leading white actors and whose name could be considered as much of a box office draw in the 1980s.

Several of his roles are founded on the almost unique parallel of being a smart, funny black man who was utterly unfazed by white animosity. The moment when this is confirmed is the famous redneck bar scene in 48 Hrs. In the film Murphy plays a convicted armed robber on parole who finds himself working with Nick Nolte (a classic hard-nosed cop). They have 48 hours to track down a cop killer, but the film is more a vehicle for Murphy’s sassy and uncompromising comedic acting than the basic, meat-and-two-veg, cops and villains cliché.

In the bar scene Murphy declares “I don’t like white people”, and then proceeds to shake down and humiliate the clientele – a room full of Hollywood redneck cowboys who openly display the flag of the slave-owning ‘old south’. Pacifying a room full of racists with such charm that the underlying political point is made almost gently, Murphy proves to be more than just a brilliant character actor. He’s someone who is, perhaps, closer to Charlie Chaplin in his ability to challenge the status quo with timing, facial expression and pure on-screen charisma.

Dear White People (2014)

Dear White People (2014)

There are aspects of Dear White People that are problematic. Tessa Thompson, who plays Sam, has a character arc that rests on the idea that mixed-race black people shouldn’t deny the ‘white’ side of themselves, as it will lead them to live a lie. But, the smart, modern film does feel like a success in other ways, especially in how it encapsulates the millennial generation’s rhetoric around race. Set on an American Ivy League campus where overt racism, it turns out, is only a kegger away, the film climaxes in a scene where a shy writer for the university paper (played by Everybody Hates Chris’s Tyler James Williams) stumbles upon a ‘hip-hop party’ where white kids are parading around in blackface. He pushes over the sound system and starts a brawl. It’s a triumphant, albeit violent, moment of resistance.

Bring It On (2000)

“Be aggressive, be, be aggressive!” So goes the chant from Bring It On, setting the tone for a racially charged cheerleading movie that, ironically, sees black women subverting their ‘angry’ stereotype to come out on top. This might seem like a strange one to include on the list, but the racial issues explored in this peppy classic – about a white high school cheerleading team that realises all of its routines are stolen from a poorer black squad – mean that it’s well-deserving of its cult status. The black team, in their ass-shaking eminence, turn up at one of the rival squad’s high school football games and hit them with this memorable cheer: “Try to steal our bit –  but you look like shit / But we’re the ones who’re down with it”. Bring It On: a take-down of cultural appropriation that mixes light subversiveness with Gabrielle Union looking glorious in green and gold.

Babylon (1980)

Babylon (1980)

Babylon shows the journey of a young black British man (Brinsley Forde, as reggae ‘toaster’ or MC, Blue) on a path that seems to lead inevitably to violent revenge. Made at a time when the UK’s young black men regularly experienced violence at the hands of fascists and the police, the film portrays a community that, in desperation, responds in kind. After Blue is involved in the brutal mugging of a gay white man, one of the gang explains to him: “How do you think all these politicians, all these police, blokes driving around in fast cars get so high? …survival.” At the climax, as the police smash their way into a rave, we hear Blue over the sound system: “Stand firm!” Left with no choice by ‘Babylon’ he and his community decide to fight back.

Pressure (1976)

Pressure (1975)

Like Babylon, Pressure was made when overt racism was common for black people in the UK. Less militantly nihilistic, it tells the story of Tony, an Anglicised, well-behaved black teen who is discovering how to navigate the hostile environment of mid-1970s London and soon comes to the conclusion that the white world is weighted against him. Even in a film with a black director (Horace Ové) the resistance is crystallised in a scene where, after the police have raided and trashed his home, Tony confronts his mother who believes that “we have to work hard and hope they [white people] leave we alone”. Tony’s subsequent radical transformation and incipient militancy promises resistance, but he’s still in a near hopeless situation.

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