NEW YORK – Oprah Winfrey has heard this story before.
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 protagonists and largely by black directors. As one of the stars of the Civil Rights history “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” Winfrey 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 Hollywood’s regular output.
“We’ve been through this before,” says Winfrey. “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.’”
2013 is a historical high-point for black-themed films, a culmination of Obama-era cinema. But the filmmakers 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 industry, disdains black filmmakers being treated like “flavors 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 Nov. 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 Nov. 27.
Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” with Michael B. Jordan as 22-year-old Oscar Grant, is a humanistic portrait of a young black man seldom seen at the movies: as a caring, generous 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 passionate white liberal, but via the dinner table of an average black family.
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 recalibration of Hollywood’s “Gone With the Wind” point of view. In a striking review, Grantland’s Wesley Morris said the film “radically shifts the perspective of the American racial historical 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 Washington, 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,” starring the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, 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 directed by a black filmmaker. The best actor category, too, is full of black contenders, including Ejiofor, 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 (“Million Dollar Baby”) and Jamie Foxx (“Ray”) followed for 2004, as did the combination of Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) and Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) for 2006.
But those tipping points were followed 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 analyzed the 500 top-grossing films at the U.S. box office in recent years. Last year, African-Americans represented 10.8 percent of all speaking characters. (Hispanics at 4.2 percent and Asians with 5 percent 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, according to the study.
Most of this year’s wave of films relied not on Hollywood studios for distribution, but independent distributors, and had to hunt hard for financing. Lee Daniels and the late producer Laura Ziskin sought out wealthy African-Americans to fund “The Butler.”
“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 provoking 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 accomplish so much outside of the movie theater.
“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 dialogue.”
But Whitaker emphasized there’s a long way to go, still: “People act like it’s a history as opposed to recognizing 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 Butler,” and finally to the contemporary prejudices of “Fruitvale Station.”
“They’re great stories which happen to tell the stories of black people,” says Ejiofor. “I kind of have a suspicion that that’s the way it should be.”
By Jake Coyle