From silent film pioneer Oscar Micheaux to two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington, the greatest names in black cinema will be showcased at a Towson theater this year as the Heritage Cinema unveils its list of the 100 greatest African-American films.
Heritage founder Michael Johnson, who has been working on the list for some seven years, plans to reveal its secrets slowly over the course of the year. And to keep things interesting, he's not going to reveal the list's films in order.
The series begins tonight at 7 with No. 47, Superfly, the 1972 film starring Ron O'Neal as a streetwise drug dealer trying to leave the trade. This movie was chosen to kick off the series, Johnson said, to honor O'Neal, who died Jan. 14 at age 66.
It's scheduled to end on Dec. 31 with the No. 1 film - which Johnson grudgingly admitted is the same one that topped the "50 best" list he unveiled in 2000 - A Raisin in the Sun. That 1961 film starred Sydney Poitier as the elder son in a black family struggling to settle into a white neighborhood.
Johnson promises a number of surprises in the list. Perhaps the biggest is the film that comes in at No. 100: D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which not only features few black actors (most of the African-American roles were performed by white actors in blackface), but encouraged the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
"I think people realized the importance of the overriding racism of that film," Johnson said.
The Heritage has been soliciting votes from across the country via mailings and the Internet since 1997.
Johnson estimated that he will be showing six or seven films per month. Then, starting Nov. 26, he'll show the top 20 vote-getters in order.
While remaining coy about the list's precise contents, Johnson would say that the top 20 includes such films as Hurricane, Malcolm X, The Color Purple, Carmen Jones, Watermelon Man and, at No. 20, Gordon Parks' The Learning Tree.
For purposes of the list, Heritage defined "an African-American film" as one featuring a primarily black cast, or featuring a black actor or actress in a lead role, or directed by an African-American.
Johnson said he was pleasantly surprised to see one of Micheaux's films (one of the unnamed selections) make the top 20. But most of the top vote-getters were more recent films.
"The new cats just want to see Hurricane, Malcolm X, movies like that," Johnson said.
The Heritage CinemaPlex is at 1045 Taylor Ave. in Towson. For more information, call 410-832-7685.