Hollywood defies trend, for now, as black films find major success

Casts and subject matter were more diverse and critically acclaimed than ever, but was 2013 an anomaly?

Actors Lupita Nyong’o, left, and Chiwetel Ejiofor earned critical acclaim and box-office success for “12 Years a Slave.”
Everett Collection

Sitting in a packed theater surrounded by several of her friends, Katina Davis settled in for a movie that would take her back to a time when black Americans were regularly bought and sold, kept in chains and savagely beaten.

It was difficult to watch, she said, describing a scene from the film that brought her and several others to tears. It was a “gut-wrenching experience,” she said, and one that had a lasting impact.

“I knew it was going to be a powerful experience,” Davis said. “I wanted as many people to see it as possible because I knew it would be moving emotionally.”

Brutal, direct and unforgiving, “12 Years a Slave” has garnered praise from nearly every critics’ and film association, and is near the top of everyone’s short list for the major film awards.

While Hollywood has often been criticized for a lack of diversity in both casts and subject matter, director Steve McQueen’s unflinching story about a free black man enslaved in 1841 was just one of several movies in 2013 to tell a story unique to African-Americans and receive critical acclaim.

“Movies are supposed to give people a deeper understanding and a connection with humanity,” Davis said, adding that seeing so many black-themed movies come out in a single year was unique and exciting. “I hope that this trend continues. I think that it’s great that they’re taking on the themes that they are now. It’s not just the comedies and trivial things. The African-American films that were made this year were powerful and had a strong message.”

Critics will debate whether 2013 was the year of black film and what such a claim means, but there’s no denying the sheer number and quality of movies that appealed to the African diaspora.

“This is a historic year in black film because there are, I think, 48 films, if you count documentaries and independent films, as well as the big matinee movies that were released this year,” said Emil Wilbekin, editor at Essence magazine. “Finally in Hollywood, we are seeing images of African-Americans that are diverse, broad and unique.”

‘More resonant now’

From historical reflection pieces such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Fruitvale Station” to biopics like “Mandela” and “42” or dramas like “The Butler” (loosely based on the real story of White House butler Eugene Allen), so-called black films were represented well at the box office in 2013.

“People have been talking about the issue of the lack of diversity in Hollywood and the need to tell these stories, and for a number of reasons, that hasn’t happened,” said Darnell Hunt, director of the UCLA Bunche Center for African American Studies. “These films seem to be a departure from that. I think that certainly in terms of visibility and notoriety, this year has been quite remarkable as it pertains to a handful of films that folks have been talking about.”

While this isn’t the first year, as some critics have noted, that such movies have attained success, recent escalations in racial tension — from George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin to controversial stop-and-frisk policies — make it particularly notable that many new films have prominently featured African-Americans’ stories.

Hunt and Wilbekin agree that having a black president in the White House is one of many factors making these movies stand out.

“‘The Butler’ is even more resonant now,” Wilbekin said. “That also gives context to the importance of ‘12 Years a Slave,’ a story about a black free man being sold into slavery.

“Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler.
Jerod Harris/Getty Images

“‘Fruitvale Station’ was even more powerful when the Trayvon Martin case happened,” he added. The film recounts the true story of Oscar Grant, a young black man shot in the back and killed in 2009 while detained by a transit police officer in Oakland, Calif. “And we have even more issues now with stop-and-frisk in New York City. And now we’re seeing even more stories being told through black actors, writers and film directors.”

Alex Folsom remembers the shooting at Fruitvale Station. A California native, he was active in the protests held after Grant’s death.

“It was kind of the last straw on the camel’s back, locally,” he said. “‘Fruitvale Station’ came out, and I wanted to see it to see how they portrayed Oscar Grant, to see if it was respectful.”

Folsom, who is white, said that while he wishes the movie had delved more deeply into the issue of police brutality, something he believes is a major issue for all minorities in the Bay Area, he was happy to see a movie that was not afraid to take on the tough issues of race.

“I’d like to see more movies touching on issues of racism more bluntly,” he said. “I think it’s been sugarcoated for a long time. I just don’t think it’s on people’s consciousness. There’s a white privilege and hegemony that blinds a lot of people.”

‘A breakout of sorts’

While audiences may have an appetite for more films dealing with issues affecting blacks and other minority communities, experts say it isn’t likely there will be another year like 2013 in the near future.

Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association, which recently gave its top honor to “12 Years a Slave,” said that if black filmmakers want to see more of their stories being told on the big screen, they have to get more creative in terms of distribution and funding.

“You need to have partners, distributors who have experience in those areas who can nurture and cultivate an audience and do what it takes to make sure that those films are seen by as many people as possible,” Robertson said.

He noted that even an independent director such as Tyler Perry, who runs his own production company, has his films distributed through Lionsgate, a mainstream Hollywood studio.

“There’s a growing openness to these films being positioned in markets like Brazil, South Africa, the U.K., that have significant minority populations,” Robertson said. “The black filmmaker needs to really think outside of the box,” and also look at distribution through other platforms such as Netflix, Hulu or YouTube.

Industry watchers and fans now turn their attention to the awards season as another measure of change in Hollywood.

“I’d like to think that things are changing; demographically I think certainly things are changing,” Hunt said. “Of course we have an industry controlled by white males that make those decisions, often based on their own bias and perceptions, and that’s why we have these type of discussions when we do see things like this year, that appears to be a breakout of sorts.”

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