News / Arts & Entertainment

Hollywood Reflects on Race in Year of Black, Civil Rights Films

Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, left, and Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in a scene from "Lee Daniels' The Butler," undated film image released by The Weinstein Company.
Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, left, and Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in a scene from "Lee Daniels' The Butler," undated film image released by The Weinstein Company.
TEXT SIZE - +
Reuters
— Race in America has been a hot topic of debate this summer and Hollywood, as if on cue, has muscled its way into the conversation.
 
This year is shaping up to be a big one in film for African American, black and civil rights themes, offering audiences different lenses through which to consider the complex question of racial equality, both historically and in the present day.
 
In 2011, Hollywood had "The Help," a story of the civil rights struggle among maids in 1960s Mississippi, and in 2012, director Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" produced a novel take on slavery. Both were nominated for best picture Oscars and did well at the box office.
 
In 2013, there are half a dozen films to choose from, several from black directors. They include civil rights drama "Lee Daniels' The Butler," which has led the box office for the past two weekends, and Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," the true story of a free man who is enslaved, which premieres in October.
 
Already this year, audiences and critics alike have embraced "42" about Jackie Robinson, the first black to play Major League Baseball after 50 years of segregation, and "Fruitvale Station," the real-life story of Oscar Grant, a young unarmed black man killed by white police in Oakland four years ago.
 
The slate also includes two biopics on South African anti-apartheid leaders: Nelson Mandela in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," due for release in November, and "Winnie Mandela," his former wife, is out in September.
 
Their release comes against the backdrop of the biggest discussion on race in the United States in years: the trial in the killing of unarmed African American teenager Trayvon Martin and President Barack Obama's explanation in highly personal terms of what it means to be a young black man in America have been the summer highlights.
 
This week, the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
 
There's no easy explanation as to why Hollywood has upped its treatment of race in film and it's too early to say that black film is thriving, according to Todd Boyd, a professor who specializes in race and popular culture at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.
 
But he says it is not a stretch to link Hollywood's keen interest in these stories to the election of Obama in 2008.
 
"The visibility of the nation's first African American president has made the issue of race visible throughout the culture and one of the places we are seeing that is in Hollywood," Boyd said.
 
Another look at slavery
 
McQueen started thinking about a slavery film four-and-a-half years ago and liked the idea of a free man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. His wife then found the autobiography of Solomon Northup, who was rounded up in 1841 and sent to Louisiana plantations for 12 years. He is played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.
 
For the British director who made the acclaimed sex addiction drama "Shame," the number of films with black subject matter shouldn't be seen as something extraordinary or even noteworthy. It just comes down to making good films.
 
"This shouldn't be every once in a while. It should be every year that films of this nature are being made and I hope it continues to do so," he said.
 
American cinema has had waves of successful black films and filmmakers, such as director Spike Lee and movies like "Boyz n the Hood" and "New Jack City" in the early 1990s.
 
Henry Louis Gates Jr., an expert in African American studies at Harvard University who consulted on "12 Years a Slave," does see black filmmakers playing a crucial role in this wave.
 
"They've been pushing for an opportunity to bring their ideas to the screen," Gates said.
 
'Breaking the color line'
 
The directors are finding backing from prominent blacks within the industry. They include media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who helped Daniels pull together "The Butler" and stars alongside Forest Whitaker as the wife of the White House butler who serves under seven U.S. presidents. It is her first film role in 15 years.
 
Whitaker, in turn, is also the producer of "Fruitvale Station" from first-time director Ryan Coogler, a 27-year-old African American from Oakland. The privately-held Weinstein Company is distributing "The Butler," "Fruitvale" and "Mandela" and is expected to make a big promotional push for the films in the upcoming awards season.
 
Winfrey, for one, said she doesn't think this year's films will play a role in the debate on race, but they will "allow people to see the broad spectrum and tapestry of humanity that is the African American experience."
 
"You know how you break down the bars of racism? You let people see, 'Oh, you think and feel the same way I think and feel,'" she said.
 
Hollywood, in Boyd's view, still needs to do more to bring more diversity to the film industry and to tackle the tougher subject matter of racism.
 
"If you hear any skepticism coming from me, it is connected to something like '42,'" Boyd said. "People have long celebrated the breaking of the color line, they just don't want to talk about the color line. They want to talk about breaking it."

You May Like

Photogallery Pope's Easter Prayer: Peace in Ukraine, Syria

Pontiff also calls for end to terrorist acts in Nigeria, violence in Iraq, and success in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians More

Abdullah Holds Lead in Afghan Presidential Election

Country's Election Commission says that with half of the ballots counted, former FM remains in the lead with 44 percent of the vote More

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

As tensions between Kyiv and Moscow escalate, so too has frequency of online attacks targeting government, news and financial sites More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

Saxophonist Craig Handy has an exciting new band called 2nd Line Smith, which combines the organ-jazz repertoire of Jimmy Smith with the “second line” rhythms of New Orleans parade music. Craig Handy joins "Beyond Category" host Eric Felten at Washington’s Bohemian Caverns jazz club to talk about the music and perform with the band.