Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : January 18th 2014 Contents A36
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Saturday, January 18, 2014
Several smart films about
racial issues were released
in 2013, yet only one of
them, 12 Years a Slave, has
received major Academy Award
Last year felt like a breakthrough.
Lee Daniels The Butler, a film about
an African-American who attended
to several US presidents, not only
drew rave reviews and Oscars buzz
but topped the US box office for
three weekends in a row---dispelling
the idea that white audiences won t
flock to a film about the black expe-
rience. Fruitvale Station, a passion-
ate depiction of the shooting of a
young black man by a white police
officer, emerged as a surprise indie
hit and an awards season favourite.
And critics hailed 12 Years a Slave
as a landmark in the depiction of
American slavery---not to mention
an early frontrunner for the Acad-
emy s best picture.
But when the nominations were
announced on January 16, only one
of these received a nod. "In theatres,
2013 may have been, in some ways,
the year of the black movie , but
in the Academy, it turned out to
be the year of a black movie," writes
journalist and author Mark Harris.
Twelve Years a Slave garnered nine
nominations, but there was nothing
for The Butler or Fruitvale Station.
Another film once thought to be
in the running, Mandela: The Long
Walk to Freedom, received only
one---for a song written by U2.
"This does not mean that the Acad-
emy is racist," Harris added, noting
that six black artists did receive
nominations. "But it s certainly a
reminder, as if any were needed,
that the Academy is white."
Hollywood s racial history is to
some degree marked by moments
at the Academy Awards: when Hat-
tie McDaniel became the first black
Oscar winner ever, for 1939 s Gone
With the Wind, when Sidney Poiti-
er became the first black best actor
winner for 1963 s Lilies of the Field,
or Halle Berry the first black best
actress winner for 2001 s Monster s
Ball. These milestones have gen-
erally been the exceptions, not the
rule. (The table where Hattie
McDaniel sat at the ceremony was
still segregated from the white
Taking the Oscars by numbers,
in its 85-year history, 291 performers
have been awarded. Only 14 were
black---four for best actor, one for
best actress, four for best supporting
actor and five for best supporting
actress. For film artists and tech-
nicians who work behind the cam-
era, it s even fewer. There has never
been a black winner for cinematog-
raphy or editing, and only one for
screenwriting (for 2009 s Precious).
No black producer has taken
home a best picture prize. And there
has never been a black best director
winner. Steve McQueen is only the
third black director to receive a
nomination for 12 Years a Slave.
And for all the critical praise 12
Years a Slave has received, it is hard-
ly a shoe-in to win best picture.
Hollywood trade publications have
reported that some members of the
Academy have grumbled about the
film s brutality, or have been put
off by reviews highlighting its vio-
lence. "I think reviews have over-
hyped the violence," says Anthony
Breznican, Entertainment Weekly s
Oscars analyst. "But there is much
more to the story than that.
By heralding the violence as pun-
ishing for the audience and relent-
less, many reviews have ignored
the depth of affection between the
characters, and their willingness to
sacrifice for each other." Could its
brutality prevent some Academy
members from voting for it?
"Twelve Years a Slave will be a
healthy test of the Academy. Some
voters have been intimidated by it,
but by now most of them have
given the film a shot and many
have been deeply moved," he says.
Cultural critic Frank Rich, writing
in New York magazine, likens 12
Years a Slave s point of view to that
of the abolitionist character Miss
Ophelia in Uncle Tom s Cabin:
"This is perfectly horrible! You
ought to be ashamed of yourselves!"
Rich writes. "However elegantly
rendered, that is the message of 12
Years a Slave to a white audience.
It s the message we knew going in.
What should also matter to a con-
temporary audience seeing a movie
about the evils of slavery are the
intractable vestiges of slavery s lega-
cy that persist even now."
Though it has been criticised
over the years for ignoring films
about contemporary racial injustice
---most notably by choosing to hon-
our Driving Miss Daisy with Best
Picture in 1989 while not nomi-
nating Spike Lee s Do the Right
Thing for the top prize---that might
speak to the Oscar voting body s
long-standing preference for safe
entertainment over provocation.
"I m no apologist for the Oscars:
they miss landmark films and per-
formances all the time. But I would-
n t paint them as cowardly about
race," Breznican says. "Crash [which
won best picture in 2005] was
entirely about race relations and
wasn t the softball, feel-good movie
some like to remember it. And yet,
yes, they also honour movies [with
racial themes] like The Help and
The Blind Side, which do have a
much softer focus."
Though the number of black
artists who have received Oscars
has been scant, there are signs that
the Academy is starting to be more
inclusive: of those 14 black per-
formers to win a statuette, eight
have collected their prize in the past
13 years. That may not be much
consolation to the makers of Fruit-
vale Station and The Butler, but
progress can begin with small steps.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, left, and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave.
Are the Oscars
progressive on race?
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