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.
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

UN: 1 Million Somalis at Risk of Hunger

Group warns region is in dire need of humanitarian aid, with at least 200,000 children under age of five acutely malnourished as drought hits southern, central part of nation More

Human Rights Groups Allege Supression of Freedoms in Thailand

Thailand’s military, police have suppressed release of independent report assessing human rights in kingdom during first 100 days of latest coup More

Jennifer Lawrence Contacts FBI After Nude Photos Hacked

'Silver Linings Playbook' actress' photos were posted on image-sharing forum 4chan; Federal Bureau of Investigations is looking into matter 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 Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forcesi
X
September 02, 2014 12:58 PM
A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forces

A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video US Detainees Want Negotiators for Freedom in North Korea

The three U.S. detainees held in North Korea were permitted to speak with foreign media Monday. The government of Kim Jong Un restricted the topics of the questions, and the interviews in Pyongyang were limited to five minutes. Each of the men asked Washington to send a representative to Pyongyang to secure his release. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti has our story.
Video

Video Internet, Technology Offer New Tools for Journalists

The Internet and rapidly evolving technology is quickly changing how people receive news and how journalists deliver it. There are now more ways to tell a story than ever before. One school in Los Angeles is teaching the next generation of journalists with the help of a state-of-the-art newsroom. Elizabeth Lee has this report.
Video

Video Turkmen From Amerli Describe Survival of IS Siege

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents. Sebastian Meyer went to Kirkuk for VOA to speak to those who managed to escape.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

Pianist Myra Melford’s new CD “Life Carries Me This Way” features solo piano interpretations of drawings by modern artist Don Reich. She performs songs from the album, talks about turning art into music, and joins host Eric Felten in some Chicago boogie-woogie on "Beyond Category."