What do the famous movie lines “They call me Mister Tibbs!” (Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night, 1967) and “E.T. phone home” (Pat Welsh doing the voice of E.T., 1982) have in common?
Before someone breaks the internet arguing that the actual line uttered by E.T. was “home phone” and not “phone home,” I really don’t care, the little girl in the movie also says “phone home” in that order right after the Muppet-alien says “home … phone”, so the line in that word order exists in the movie, and this post isn’t about that.
What the two lines have in common is the number one. That’s because out of all 100 of the greatest lines from a century of movies, there’s only one that’s spoken by a black person, which happens to be the same number that were spoken by extra terrestrials.
Actually, it’s the same number of lines – one – spoken by any Latinos or Latinas too. That distinction goes to Alfanso Bedoya, playing a Mexican bandit in the 1948 film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and AFI ranked it at #36, sandwiched by much shorter famous quips by Roy Scheider and Arnold Schwarzenegger, respectively.
It also happens to be the same number of lines uttered by a disembodied voice (“If you build it he will come” from Field of Dreams) and by a malevolent creature of Middle Earth (“My preciousssssss” by Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis, in LOTR). Oh and there’s one line uttered by a green witch (Wizard of Oz, 1939) and one by a vampire (Dracula, 1931).
Why am I blogging about this? I’m not really sure. What started me on this path was watching the “Show me the money!” line in Jerry Maguire (awarded #25 on AFI’s list). Now it’s possible to argue that that line is not only uttered by Tom Cruise – who is the focus of the clip AFI used in their broadcast video of the 100 movie quotes – but that Cuba Gooding, Jr. also says the line, which would bring us up to 1.5 total lines out of 100 spoken by black actors. On the other hand, Al Jolson’s line in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” is uttered by a white character who we see performing in blackface, and that kind of cancels out the possible half-credit we might assign to Cuba Gooding, Jr. (For a nuanced and complex take on Al Jolson, check out this short video.)
I have to wonder whether AFI’s panel of cultural and film experts gave enough consideration to some of these famous lines uttered by black actors:
“Bye, Felicia.” – Ice Cube in Friday (1995).
I’m not saying this line has been culturally bigger than, say, AFI’s #76 (“Hasta la vista, baby!” by Ahhhhhhhnold in T2: Judgment Day), but it surely is bigger than what they have for #77, Charlton Heston’s “Soylent Green is people!” from the 1973 dystopian sci-fi flick, Soylent Green.
I hereby amend AFI’s top 100 list and proclaim “Bye, Felicia” to be #76.5 on their list.
Oh, small note. I’m limiting this analysis to films from 2005 and earlier, since that’s when AFI put their list out. But let’s consider some more possible additions to the list.
Samuel L. Jackson is a one-man iconic quote machine, my favorite of which is from Pulp Fiction (1994), when he quotes Ezekiel: “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee.”
I’m going to call that #40.5, right after Forrest Gump’s “My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” but before Bonnie and Clyde’s “We rob banks,” line delivered by Warren Beatty.
Getting sleepy and need to pause here… hope I can get back to this and say more…
OK… I’m back.
Though the character of Darth Vader wears black, that told us nothing about the physical appearance of the man inside the Vader suit (that didn’t get revealed until decades later). But the actor who spoke the lines was the deep-resounding-voiced James Earl Jones. How “I am your father” from Empire Strikes Back didn’t make AFI’s top 100 I can’t explain. AFI had “May the Force be with you” at #8, and “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” from All About Eve at #9. I think it’s fair to say “I am your father” slots in at #8.5. Also, isn’t there a case to be made for Vader’s “I find your lack of faith . . . disturbing” line in the original 1977 Star Wars?
As a teenager in the 80s, I can assure you that Mr. T’s “I pity the fool…” line in Rocky III was constantly on everybody’s lips. AFI listed Marlon Brando’s famous “Stella! Hey Stella!” from A Streetcar Named Desire at #45, followed by, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars,” spoken by Bette Davis in Now Voyager. I think Mr. T’s line is not as famous or iconic as Brando’s, but it is sure to remain a pop culture meme for years to come, whereas everything about Now Voyager will continue to fade into the limited cultural niche of Bette Davis fandom. No disrespect intended to Bette Davis, at all, btw. Mr. T, congrats – your line is in at #45.5. Also, your one word line, “Pain!”, in response to a reporter asking you for your prediction for the fight with Balboa, probably belongs somewhere on this list.
So, at this point I’m noticing that I haven’t thrown out any lines by black women in film. This is probably partly my ignorance at work combined with the harsh reality that black women simply don’t get hardly any starring roles in movies. I’m not done looking, but I am done for the time being. Gotta get some sleep…
I’m back again, some days later…
This doesn’t address the difficulty of finding famous movie lines that have become cross-cultural mass-appeal staples uttered by black women in films, but the English newspaper, The Telegraph listed as one of the top 75 movie quotes Danny Glover’s “I’m getting too old for this shit,” spoken to Mel Gibson in the 1987 blockbuster, Lethal Weapon. At the risk of creating some kind of cosmic chaos by mixing The Telegraph’s list with AFI’s, I’m going to find what I think is a fair slot for Glover’s line on AFI’s list. They have as #25 the aforementioned “Show me the money!” By Tom Cuba Cruise-Gooding, Jr. I’ll wager that that line is still more popular and enduring than Glover’s. However, at #26 AFI lists “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” by Marlene Dietrich
in 1933’s She Done Him Wrong. I was just about to argue for slotting Glover’s line in between those two, but I’m thinking that I’m forcing the issue a bit. Dietrich’s line has been a pop culture meme for over 80 years, and it still endures, so I can’t justify that move.
But, AFI’s #27 is “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!” Recognize it? I didn’t at first, so Danny Glover your line is now duly noted at #26.5. For those of you who don’t recognize #27, it’s Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy from 1969. Great movie, and Hoffman played a memorable character with brilliance, but I don’t think that line has endured in quite the same way as Glover’s.
Another line I think may have been overlooked by AFI comes from Richard Pryor, in the 1980, Sidney Poitier directed comedy, Stir Crazy. (Side note: Poitier’s film had a budget of $10m, but it grossed over $100m at the box office, making it the first film directed by an African-American to haul in over a hundred mill. For those of you who like to compare apples to apples, I checked on an online inflation calculator and every dollar in 1980 roughly = three dollars today, so this was a massively profitable film for the studio.)
Anyway, the line I think may qualify is when Pryor says, “That’s right … that’s right … we bad.” You can see the scene on YouTube. Top 100 of all time? Maybe my personal top 100…
One movie I missed when it came out, and therefore never really felt its impact, was the 2001 film, Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar. The standout line was Denzel shouting “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” I’m going to slot it in above
AFI’s #97: James Cagney’s “My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you,” from the 1942 hit, Yankee Doodle Dandy, because honestly I doubt anyone under 65 years of age would recognize the line at all. AFI’s #96 is Cher’s iconic “Snap out of it!” from Moonstruck (1987), which she says to Nicolas Cage after slapping him in the face, twice. I think Cher’s line may be more famous & enduring than Denzel’s line, but I’m certain Denzel’s line has way more staying power than James Cagney’s. So Detective Alonzo Harris, you’re in at #96.5.
I haven’t yet turned to Blazing Saddles, which features several great lines by the late Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart. Most of the lines play off racial stereotypes, with Cleavon Little using the racial anxieties of the white townspeople in order to get things done that need to get done. “Excuse me, folks, while I whip this out,” may be the most quoted one of these lines. For me, the most poignant one comes during this exchange with Jim the Waco Kid, played by the late Gene Wilder. Perhaps most memorable is:
Little: Are we awake?
Wilder: We’re’ not sure. …Are we … black?
Little: Yes we are.
Wilder: Then we’re awake, but we are very puzzled.
I think Cleavon Little’s “Yes we are” line slots in above the 1930 line from the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, which you can see below received AFI’s ranking of #53, because way more people remember it (and a lot of the great lines in Blazing Saddles) than still remember this particular Marx Bros line. But I can’t claim that Little’s line is more iconic than “You had me at ‘hello,” from Jerry Maguire, at #52. So I’ve determined that Cleavon Little’s line slots in at #52.5.
I’ve found a bunch of movie lines uttered by African-American actors that should be in the AFI top 100, and I haven’t even gotten to Spike Lee’s movies. Let’s start with a line delivered by the late, great actor/director/playwright/poet, Ossie Davis. Davis played Da Mayor in Lee’s 1989 smash, Do the Right Thing, and it is Davis who says the key line, “Always do the right thing,” to Mookie, played by Lee in the film he also wrote and directed. I think “Always do the right thing,” is a more enduring and recognizable line than AFI’s #30, “I want to be alone,” from Grand Hotel (1932). But I can’t argue that it tops AFI’s #29, Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” from A Few Good Men (1992). So welcome to #29.5, “Always do the right thing.”
As long as we’re looking at Do the Right Thing, I can’t resist drawing us to watch this clip, in which Ossie Davis says another great line to a bunch of young people who start hassling him and insulting his struggles as an old man. Davis goes into a speech, centered around the question he throws back at the young folks: “What you know about me?”
Okay, I thought I was going to continue on with quotes from Spike Lee movies, but my morning coffee just reminded me of a glaring omission from this list. AFI’s top 100 lines don’t include any from the 1962 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, and there are several diamonds in that film. One of the most powerful moments takes place near the film’s end, after Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) has lost his case defending the falsely accused Tom Robinson (Brock Peters). In the segregated court room of those times, non-whites had to sit in the balcony area of the court. As a dejected Atticus slowly collects his things from the defendant’s table, everyone sitting in the balcony area rises to their feet to give honor to Atticus’ efforts. Among the black community members crowded into the balcony section is Atticus’ daughter, Jean Louise, a.k.a. “Scout” (Mary Badham). She was too thunderstruck and shocked that the jury could return a guilty verdict to notice that people all around her were standing up. Rev. Sykes (Bill Walker) turns to Scout and says this classic line:
“Ms. Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
Okay, now on to one of the biggest misses of all by AFI. Laurence Fishburne, as Morpheus, in the 1999 mega-hit, The Matrix. Who can forget the choice Neo (Keanu Reeves) is presented with by Morpheus – the red pill or the blue pill?
It’s such a massive pop culture meme that there’s even a Wikipedia entry just for “red pill and blue pill.”
It’s been almost 20 years since The Matrix was released, and yet still, online, you find tons of this:
As I think about this iconic sci-fi line and its staying power, I think Fishburne’s line has to crack the top 10. And now I’m feeling like this whole business of giving these great movie lines by Black actors numbers that end in .5, sandwiched between the whole numbered entries on AFI’s list, is perpetuating the whole systemic problem. So enough of that. I’m bumping some of these AFI lines out of the list and making room.
Morpheus, the red pill and the blue pill are hereby enshrined at #9 on Maurice’s modified AFI top 100 movie lines list. The previous entry at #9, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,” from All about Eve (1950) is going off the board for now. I need to go back and mess with all the previous lines I’ve been adding in to the top 100 list, and get the list back to being just 100 lines, all whole numbers, 1 to 100. I’ll write some more once I’ve gotten to it.
Oh, my gosh, I just noticed that I neglected to find a slot in the top 100 for Bill Walker’s line from To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, it’s slotting in at #73, knocking out “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” from Little Ceaser (1931), the box office smash that curiously predicted the rise and spread, some 40 years later, of the cheap take-out pizza franchise of the same name. Okay, that’s not true. It’s actually the story of a gangster played by Edward G. Robinson, who delivers the line in question. Apparently it’s a movie that transformed the genre and laid foundations for lots of later great films, so I feel a little crummy just tossing it. I’m sure it’s a great flick and Edward G. Robinson had a unique screen presence – but there are only 100 slots, and something’s gotta give. Still, as a rabbi, I can’t help but be drawn to this Edward G. Robinson gem: