Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : November 7th 2013 Contents B48
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Thursday, November 7, 2013
Oprah Winfrey has heard this
A wave of high-profile films about
black people receives accolades. A
heart-warming trend of greater on-
screen equality is declared. Hollywood
basks in its multiculturalism---and
then returns to business as usual.
From the slavery odyssey 12 Years
a Slave to the day-in-a-life drama
Fruitvale Station, this fall has been
a banner season for films of racial
struggle told without white protag-
onists and largely by black directors.
As one of the stars of the Civil Rights
history Lee Daniels The Butler, Win-
frey is a proud player in a rare
moment for African-Americans at
the movies. But she and many others
have tired of celebrating occasional
aberrations of what should be Hol-
lywood s regular output.
"We ve been through this before,"
says Winfrey. "I don t want it to be,
Oh, gee, we had the ten films and
now it s another five years before you
see another one ."
This year is a historical high-point
for black-themed films, a culmination
of Obama-era cinema. But the film-
makers and actors who made this
confluence happen are resolutely
against being resigned to a mere trend
story, soon to be followed by another
lull in diversity.
Spike Lee, whose near-annual
turnout has been a steady line
through the undulations of the indus-
try, disdains black filmmakers being
treated like "flavours of the year."
"Every 10 years, we have the same
conversation: Oh, there s lots of black
films being made ," says Lee, who will
release his revenge remake Oldboy
later this month. "Then it drops off.
It s not consistent."
Opening November 29 is Mandela:
Long Walk to Freedom, a sweeping
biopic of the South African leader
starring Idris Elba. It joins a group
of films that began with the Jackie
Robinson drama 42 and runs through
to the Langston Hughes adaptation
Black Nativity, out November 27.
Ryan Coogler s Fruitvale Station,
with Michael B. Jordan as 22-year-
old Oscar Grant, is a humanistic por-
trait of a young black man seldom
seen at the movies: as a caring, gen-
erous father. The box-office hit The
Butler, with Forest Whitaker as a
generations-spanning White House
butler, chronicles the Civil Rights era
not from the perspective of a pas-
sionate white liberal, but via the din-
ner table of an average black fam-
ily.Steve McQueen s 12 Years a Slave,
based on Solomon Northup s 1853
memoir, has been nearly universally
hailed as the most unblinking portrait
yet of slavery, a long-overdue recal-
ibration of Hollywood s Gone With
the Wind point of view. In a striking
review, Grantland s Wesley Morris
said the film "radically shifts the per-
spective of the American racial his-
torical drama from the allegorical
uplift to the explanatory wallop."
"If I was an alien and landed on
Earth and looked at the history of
films, I wouldn t think that there
would be no slave narrative, or very
little," says McQueen, the British
video artist-turned filmmaker.
McQueen believes the confluence
of films suits the times.
"With the unfortunate death of
Trayvon Martin, with having a black
president, with the 150th anniversary
of the abolition of slavery, the 50th
anniversary of the March on Wash-
ington, it s sort of like this perfect
storm which has occurred where, I
think, people are ready to receive the
film in a way maybe they haven t
been before," he says.
If 12 Years a Slave goes on to win
the best picture Oscar (a prediction
of many---though certainly not all---
Academy Awards onlookers), it would
be the first best picture winner direct-
ed by a black filmmaker. The best
actor category, too, is full of African
American contenders, including Ejio-
for, Whitaker, Elba and Jordan.
The Oscars (which Chris Rock once
called a "million white man march")
have increasingly served as celebratory
breakthroughs in Hollywood s racial
ceiling. For 2001, two black actors
won the top acting prizes for the first
time: Denzel Washington (Training
Day) and Halle Berry (Monster s Ball).
Dual wins for Morgan Freeman (Mil-
lion Dollar Baby) and Jamie Foxx (Ray)
followed for 2004, as did the com-
bination of Whitaker (The Last King
of Scotland) and Jennifer Hudson
(Dreamgirls) for 2006.
But those tipping points were fol-
lowed by more incremental progress.
The 2011 best-picture nominee The
Help was viewed by many in the
black community as the embrace of
a stereotype (another story of racial
injustice starring a white person).
Last week, a USC Annenberg study
supplied a reminder of Hollywood
realities. The school analyszed the
500 top-grossing films at the US box
office in recent years. Last year,
African-Americans represented 10.8
per cent of all speaking characters.
(Hispanics at 4.2 per cent and Asians
with 5 per cent fared even worse.)
Between 2007 and 2012, the 565
directors of the top 500 films included
only 33 black filmmakers, and just
two of them black women.
The imbalance also affects the kind
of roles black actors receive. Black
males are notably less likely to play
romantic partners or parents, accord-
ing to the study.
Most of this year s wave of films
relied not on Hollywood studios for
distribution, but independent dis-
tributors, and had to hunt hard for
financing. Lee Daniels and the late
producer Laura Ziskin sought out
wealthy African-Americans to fund
"It s politically incorrect ... to
scream racism in Hollywood, in
America," says Daniels. "It s time to
now not do that. We ve got to call
it as we see it."
Change, of course, can come in
spurts, and the discussion generated
by the films this year has only just
started. Vanity Fair s James Wolcott
recently claimed the movies are pro-
voking a national conversation on
race that politicians have failed to
generate. New York magazine s Frank
Rich lamented that even a film such
as 12 Years a Slave can only accom-
plish so much outside of the movie
"Dialogue is occurring," says
Whitaker, who also helped produce
Fruitvale Station and stars in Black
Nativity. People are taking their
points of view about how they see
their environment, their world. All
these films are engaging in that dia-
But Whitaker emphasised there s
a long way to go, still: "People act
like it s a history as opposed to recog-
nising it as a movement," he says.
One could look at these movies as
chronological snapshots of that
movement: from the 19th century
Louisiana plantation of 12 Years a
Slave to the Civil Rights upheaval of
20th century Washington in The But-
ler, and finally to the contemporary
prejudices of Fruitvale Station.
"They re great stories which hap-
pen to tell the stories of black people,"
says Ejiofor. "I kind of have a sus-
picion that that s the way it should
Banner year for black films
This film image released by The Weinstein Company shows Robin Williams as Dwight
Eisenhower, left, and Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in a scene from Lee Daniels' The
Butler. From 12 Years a Slave to The Butler to Fruitvale Station, 2013 has been a banner year
for movies directed by black filmmakers. Like seldom before, African American stories are
being told on the big screen without white protagonists.
This film publicity image released by Fox Searchlight shows Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from 12
Years A Slave. From 12 Years a Slave to The Butler to Fruitvale Station, 2013 has been a banner
year for movies directed by black filmmakers. Like seldom before, African American stories are
being told on the big screen without white protagonists. AP PHOTOS
This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Idris Elba, as
Nelson Mandela, left, and Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela in a scene
from Mandela: Long walk to Freedom.
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