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
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."

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years 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.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”