It started with Jackie Robinson rounding the bases for home in “42” in the spring and is ending with Nelson Mandela leaving jail for home in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” in the winter. In between, there have been so many black-themed films that have reached a crossover audience that 2013 is going to go down as a banner year for black actors and directors.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Fruitvale Station” and, to a lesser extent, “42” were critically well-received, but the kicker is that they also performed well at the box office. Together, “The Butler” and “42” brought in more than $200 million.
Along with this week’s “Black Nativity,” a Christmas-themed musical based on the work of poet Langston Hughes that stars Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson, and “Mandela” starring Idris Elba, there is so much Oscar buzz around these films that this may be the year of the rarest of occurrences: multiple black Oscar nominees in multiple categories.
The result could be that the 2014 show overshadows previous years that were pointed to as racial breakthroughs: 2002 (when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry took acting honors for “Training Day” and “Monster’s Ball,” respectively), 2005 (statues for Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman for “Ray” and “Million Dollar Baby”) and 2007 (wins for Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker for “Dreamgirls” and “The Last King of Scotland”).
The likes of Elba and “12 Years a Slave’s” Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o may become household names by the time the Oscars statues are handed out in March. There’s a chance, however slim, that there could be three African Americans up for Best Director: Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), Lee Daniels (“The Butler”) and Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”).
“In terms of what’s hot in the marketplace, you have to be looking at African-American films,” says Jeff Bock of Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations, a box-office tracking firm. “They are pretty hot in much the same way that low-budget horror films are really hot.”
That’s not even taking into account the continuing success of decidedly out-of-Oscar-contention movies from Tyler Perry (who has three films this year) or an escapist rom-com like “The Best Man Holiday,” which hauled in $30.5 million in its opening weekend, not far behind the much more expensive “Thor: The Dark World.”
For Arthur Knight, a professor of American studies and English at the College of William and Mary who specializes in American cinema, the wave is very visible in his town of Williamsburg, Va.
“I can go see ‘12 Years a Slave’ or ‘The Best Man Holiday’ and we have an art cinema where ‘Fruitvale Station’ and ‘Blue Caprice’ (an indie film about the D.C. sniper attacks of 2002) played,” he says. “That’s unprecedented.”
What’s also striking about these movies’ success is that at least two of them – “12 Years a Slave” and “Fruitvale Station” – deal with the difficult issues of slavery and a police murder of an unarmed black man, leaving the audience to feel the cultural reverberations that stem from these conflicts. “Slave” is especially tough to watch, yet it’s drawing a wide audience, pulling in $25 million in what was at first a limited release.
Why this surge of interest from various crowds in black-themed films is happening now – at a time when there seems to be so much racial division in the political and social spheres – may be for a variety of reasons.
In fact, Eric Deggans, NPR’s TV critic and author of a recent book about media and race, “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation,” thinks that racial gap may not be as wide as it’s often portrayed.
“I’ve been going across the country to support my book and there are a lot of people (of all races) who want to talk about this stuff and want to deal with it,” he says.
Amy Corbin, a professor of media, communication and film studies at Allentown, Pa.’s Muhlenberg College, partially credits the star connections of Oprah Winfrey (who stars in “The Butler”) and Brad Pitt (who co-produced and plays a small part in “12 Years a Slave”).
“Their star power allows some of those films to gain prominence,” she says. “With ‘Fruitvale Station,’ that would not have gotten the attention that it got if it weren’t for some of the racial issues being discussed right now with the incarcerations (of young black men) and the Trayvon Martin case. Every year, there are good films made by African Americans that don’t get released or just play the festivals. ‘Fruitvale’ might have been one of those, but its timing was good.”
Forest Whitaker told the Associated Press that these films are sparking conversation after the lights go up in the theater. “Dialogue is occurring,” he said. “People are taking their points of view about how they see their environment, their world. All of these films are engaging in that dialogue.”
But Knight believes that what he calls “the niche-ing of America” may make the roles these movies play in our national conversation less significant.
“Sometimes we think about a movie and we think everybody goes. The last time that happened was in the late ‘50s. We still have that model that if it’s in the movie theaters, that a cross-section of America is seeing it, and I don’t think that’s true,” he says. “I suspect that a lot of the people seeing these films, that crossover audience, are on the side of the political schism in the U.S. that seems to be more in line and sympathetic to African-American concerns. I suspect that the white audience that’s going to ‘Slave’ is more Obama Democrats than Tea Partiers. That’s not to say some Tea Partiers aren’t seeing it, but it would be a small sliver of that audience.”
Mostly, though, it could come down to the fact that they are good stories well-told. “I’ve seen ‘Slave’ twice. I think it’s a masterpiece,” says Ya’Ke Smith, an art and art history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who is also a filmmaker. “Steve McQueen has made something like we’ve never seen before.”
Yet as uncomfortable as a film like “12 Years a Slave” might be, audiences can distance themselves from its horror by assuring themselves that those events happened a long time ago. The same with “42” and “The Butler,” the story of a black servant who worked in the White House for several presidents. Aside from “Fruitvale Station,” the world of contemporary African Americans remains underexplored in current dramas.
“We’re much more ready to look back and say things were bad 50 years ago or 200 years ago, but can we talk about what’s happening right now?” asks Deggans. “That’s another challenge.”
The current crop of movies dealing with African-American history follows on the heels of such recent films as “Django Unchained” in 2012 (set in the antebellum South) and “The Help” in 2011 (set in 1960s South).
Whether all of this is indicative of a sea change in Hollywood regarding films about or by blacks remains a question. After all, we’ve been down this road before.
“So often we’ve seen with something like ‘Roots’ (in the ’70s) and a movie like “Do the Right Thing” (in the ‘80s), it catches the eye of the pop-culture world, but it’s not the beginning of something,” says Deggans. “It’s a fluke.”
Oprah Winfrey expressed similar sentiments to the Associated Press in talking about “The Butler.” “I don’t want it to be, ‘Oh, gee, we had the 10 films and now it’s another five years before you see another one.’”
Carey Latimore, a professor and chair of history at San Antonio’s Trinity University, is pessimistic about the future and thinks what’s happening now “is a temporary blip.” “Considering the fact that Obama is president and race issues are in the news, the market for these movies may be high,” he says via email.
Box-office analyst Bock says, looking ahead to 2014, the cupboard’s not so full. “Next year, it might go back to what it was (before),” he says. “We’re not seeing the same amount of films,” he says. “But if these are hits, then we might see it in 2015 again.”
There are signs, though, that this time things might be different. Knight points to “Oldboy,” the new film from Spike Lee that is most definitely not black-themed. It’s a remake of a 2003 South Korean revenge tale with Josh Brolin as its star.
“That’s a place to watch: when African-American directors and writers as well as performers can move across a really broad range of material,” he says. “That fluidity seems to be happening more than it used to.”
He could also add McQueen to that list. While many Americans may just now be taking note of him because of “12 Years a Slave,” his previous films – “Shame” (2010) and “Hunger” (2008), both starring Michael Fassbender – dealt respectively with sex addiction and a hunger strike led by Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands.
Knight adds that as the studios’ summer-blockbuster business model starts to break down, it may open the door for films from the fringes. “Studios are starting to worry about their reliance on blockbusters and are willing to work more around the margins,” he says. “Even though the independent landscape isn’t as vibrant as it may have been, some of those smaller producers that are affiliated with studios are being given some latitude. And there are more sources for funding, like crowdfunding, and other mechanisms, like video on demand.”
Despite Latimore’s pessimism, he says what’s happening on the small screen, specifically ABC’s popular show “Scandal” starring Kerry Washington, might be instructive.
“‘Scandal’ has a great crossover effect,” he says. “I guess the question is whether this will lead to more exposure of African Americans in general and, more specifically, if it will lead to increased exposure of the conditions within the African-American community.”
Deggans is cautiously optimistic. “I remember doing a story on the anniversary of ‘Roots’ and a lot of the actors, after being in this TV event, couldn’t get a job after. It was inexplicable to me,” he remembers. “This doesn’t feel like that. It feels like people are realizing that there is business to be had and stories to be told and they will make a lot of money.”