Tuesday, November 5, 2013

2013: The year black history took center stage

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in July this year (for the shooting of Trayvon Martin in February 2012) made it tragically clear that racism, fueled by ignorance, fear and rote assumptions, is alive and well in America (as, sadly, it is all over the world).

Not that everyone didn't know about it before, but the Zimmerman / Martin saga got everyone talking, and angry, about it again. It couldn't be timed better, then, that three emerging black directors managed to sneak three powerful dramas (okay, two plus The Butler), telling the real-life stories of black Americans across the ages, past the Hollywood powers that be.

12 Years a Slave, The Butler and Fruitvale Station feature exceptional black (and white) ensembles, are directed by black directors with strong, unique vision and written by exceptional black writers (okay, The Butler was written by a white guy). Considering it's also the year that gave us Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and some legit African bros playing some of the most complex terrorists a mainstream director has dared to put on screen, 2013 is truly an embarassment of black American riches.

None of these films are made by, or feature, Tyler Perry (proof that there is a God), nor have they been been confined to the Tyler Perry target demographic. Helped along in no small part by the presence of Madame Oprah, The Butler crossed the $100 million box office threshold in America (not bad for a film that tells four decades of American history from a black perspective), while 12 Years a Slave is working its way up with $8.7 million so far from selected cinemas. Its epic aggregate score of 97 on Metacritic so far - based on 45 critics' reviews - should help boost word of mouth and, oh, its chances of actually winning all those Oscar races it already, inevitably, leads (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress & Supporting Actor). Fruitvale Station, by comparison is more of an independent affair, but one that's made quite an impact thanks to its Sundance victories and the presence of Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer as Producer and actor. $16 million in Box Office and an 85-er on Metacritic is not bad for a film about an ordinary black guy that got killed. 

Last year kind of set the stage for this, with both Lincoln and Django Unchained priming the conversation on slavery (in wildly different ways). But both films revolved around the white men fighting the good fight against slavery on behalf of their black brothers. And both were told by white writers and white directors. Nothing wrong with that, but in a world where black people were systematically oppressed by white folk in far too many countries, there is something very significant about black artists telling black history in their own voice.

Also, while Lincoln was mesmerising historical cinema (for those with the patience to let it cast its spell) with great dialogue plenty of food for either thought or the soul, depending on how you're wired, I found Django cheap, offensive and even exploitative (not to mention overlong and self indulgent, but those can be forgiven) in the way it presumes an eye-for-an-eye bloodlust on the part of black slaves which belies the incredible grace and restraint with which black leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela fought for freedom. But I digress. 

So where does that leave us? With three films pondering racial inequality across American history - slavery in the mid 1800s, the fight for civil rights in the 1960s and the inherent tension, and danger, of being a black man in America today (as Trayvon Martin so tragically discovered) - entering the awards race with full force: 

  • At this stage, 12 Years a Slave makes a strong case for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress. It may be too harrowing / painful / divisive to pan out in most of those, but it still enters the race as strong as any movie could hope to. 
  • The Butler's heavy sentiment and impressive Box Office make it another strong contender for that Best Picture slot reserved for the movie that made everyone cry, just a little, even if they didn't want to, even if its not really actually all that good (for recent examples, see: War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Blind Side, The Help), as well as Screenplay and even Director (box office talks)
  • The great Chiwetel Ejiofor goes head-to-head with Robert Redford for Best Actor, in 12 Years and All Is Lost, respectively, while former winner Forest Whitaker is a strong nominee contender for his complex, decade-spanning role as the nominal Butler in, well, The Butler. 
  • The Butler's Oprah Winfrey and 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o battle it out to win Best Supporting Actress (at this point, there is no-one who can touch either of them), with Fruitvale Station's Octavia Spencer in the wings with another strong performance (wildly different from her Oscar-winning role in The Help).
  • Both 
    Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) and David Oyelowo 
    (The Butler) are at the very least on the Supporting Actor radar, as a freedom-fighting son and complex maritime terrorist, respectively.
  • And don't count out Fruitvale Station which remains a contender, in the "respectable indie" slots, for Best Picture and Original Screenplay (though deserved, Best Director and Best Actor seem like extremely long shots in already-crowded fields).

But why does this matter? Who cares about Oscars anyway? They annoy everyone with their middle-of-the-road play-it-safeness and overlong, outdated, self-important ceremonies. But they can make or break both careers and profit margins. There is a reason so much energy goes into marketing movies and performances as Oscar contenders - there is a prestige to being singled out that highlights films and performances, for better or worse, and shapes the annual, and ultimately historic, cinematic narrative. 

Like it or not, the Oscars are still influential. The large majority of the population live in the middle-of-the-road and are interested in being told which films are worth stepping off the beaten box office path for, without straying too far from their comfort zone. The prestige of awards attention, warranted or not, can drastically shape the opportunities available to filmmakers. 

As a case in point, Octavia Spencer took some flack for her Oscar-winning role as sassy 1960s maid Minny Jackson in The Help; some seemed to find it demeaning that she had to lower herself to play a maid - and remind America of its way-too-recent sins - to get awards attention, while other, more legitimately, lamented Minny's more stereotypical traits as a loud, sassy, chicken-eating, church-going African American woman (although Supporting Actress is built on sassy caricatures of all racial persuasions). But the truth is that her Oscar in a very real way put her in a position to produce a film like Fruitvale Station and promote it to Sundance glory. That's how it goes. Sometimes you have to window dress to change the narrative or the perception of what is possible, what is plausible. As long as the window-dressed subjects are in any way deserving, who's complaining? And this year sees many very deserving performers getting some significant spotlight. 

So having, potentially, four to seven worthy black performances nominated in one year, with two or three "black" films by black directors filling up the Best Picture line-up, and a black man heading up the Best Director race, is, regrettably, very significant.

Let's hope 2013 marks a shift in two ways:

1) A serious evaluation of America's cruel racially divided past, and the lingering racial tensions that make fatal racial profiling seem like acceptable behaviour.

2) The first step towards a world where having multiple black nominees in any awards category is no longer newsworthy.

It is very likely that the race will shift towards "easier", less controversial films like Gravity or Nebraska, and that is fine. However it plays out, the tide has started to shift.

UPDATE: In case you needed any proof that racism is alive & well, here's Sean Hannity calling 12 Years a Slave 'black propaganda' and warning us that it will enable black youth to be lazy. He complains that white guilt is being exploited with yet another slavery movie. I'd diss the guy but really what could make him look worse than his his own words? If white guilt is still alive and well, it's because white privilege is still around. Those who prefer to pretend it doesn't exist are clearly on the winning side of it. I don't remember Schindler's List being called Jewish propaganda (although now that I say that I'm sure it was, and please don't tell me about it).