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December 18, 2013

Black-themed Films Enter Hollywood Mainstream

by Penelope Poulou

From Lee Daniel's biopic The Butler about the African American butler who served eight U.S. presidents, to Steve McQueen's historic drama 12 Years a Slave, about free man Solomon Northup's abduction into slavery, movies about the African-American experience are sweeping movie theaters and winning critical acclaim.

The Butler chronicles the life of Cecil Gaines who, from the 1950s to the late 80s, served as a catalyst for social change by discreetly affecting the presidents he served. Cecil, based on the real butler Eugene Allen, was not a social activist. He was a dignified servant commanding respect.

The Butler has gained Oscar buzz for its lead actor, Forest Whitaker, as well as supporting actress Oprah Winfrey and director Lee Daniels. It also did well at the box office, a sign that American audiences are drawn to stories about the African-American experience.

Also getting Oscar buzz is director Steve McQueen's unflinching portrayal of American slavery. The movie, 12 Years A Slave, is based on Solomon Northup's true account of his abduction into slavery and life on a southern plantation under a brutal owner.

“Going to the plantations in the south and being in places where some of these things occurred and that burning heat, the violence that he sees occurring, you do get a glimpse of what the day-to-day must have been like,” said Chiwetel Ejiofor, who portrays Northup and is considered an Oscar frontrunner.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, about the life of South African leader Nelson Mandela, is another drama that may also do well at the box office because of apartheid icon's fame and recent death. The film exposes life during apartheid in South Africa, a different type of oppression that put the black leader behind bars for 27 years.

Critical acclaim aside, George Mason University film historian Dexter Gabriel says the future of movies about the black experience is linked to the box office.

“Hollywood wants to make revenue and has these presuppositions about who goes to see movies and who will see what movies," Gabriel said. "And so it is very tepid about certain things that it thinks will not bring revenue."

Films like Black Nativity, based on the Broadway musical, show that African-American movies can hold their own, even when they are not period dramas.

The film about family reconciliation during Christmas has an impressive cast including Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson. And it’s a hit.

If these kinds of films can draw crowds, then Hollywood is likely to follow.