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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.
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."

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