December 8, 2013

Movies: It's been a notable year in black film

By Cary Darling
McClatchy Newspapers

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.

click image to enlarge

Chiwetel Ejiofor, right, in “12 Years a Slave.”

Fox Searchlight

“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.

(Continued on page 2)

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