2013 will end up being about a lot of things when the dust settles. It will be yet another year where most of the films in the Best Picture race are driven by the male narrative — give or take a Gravity. It will be the year that directing vets like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, George Clooney, David O. Russell take on the new guard, like Steve McQueen, JC Chandor and Ryan Coogler. It is the first year under the Academy’s first black female president, the first year into Obama’s second term, and the year the Supreme Court voted to dismantle a key component to the Voting Rights Act.
While we can’t yet know the outcome, there are a few things we do know. One of those is that, for the first time ever, black filmmakers are on a level playing field. This is the week Lee Daniels’ The Butler hit $100 million. He’s the first African American ever to be nominated for director and picture. To date, only two African Americans have been nominated for Best Director at all.
At the same time, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave won praise from critics out of Telluride, then did the same out of Toronto, winning the Audience Award. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station emerged strong out of Sundance and Cannes.
Because of the individual success of these three films and these three filmmakers, both in terms of critics and with audiences, it continues to feel awkward to put them in the same category simply because they are black filmmakers, and not the traditionally dominating white, male status quo. While that fact is notable, what’s even more notable is that they’re also telling important stories of our collective past, with a focus on the history of African Americans.
We are in the second term of the Obama presidency, though the wall of liberal support is waning. No matter what the current popular consensus about the President is, his legacy, his place in history — by helping to drag America forward he has had an enormous cultural impact, one that can’t be ignored.
In an interview with Sharon Waxman, Harvey Weinstein credited the Obama Presidency with influencing Hollywood this year to make way for these three strong films that reach all the way back to slavery, then on through the civil rights era, and up to today. While I agree with Weinstein on the one hand — there’s no denying the power of having a black man in the White House who wasn’t a butler — there’s also a cumulative effect happening in Hollywood and in the blogosphere. The debate has been raging for a while now, including here at AwardsDaily, for over ten years: why aren’t there more successful, accepted “Oscar movies” directed by black filmmakers, or more to the point, African American filmmakers?
When Steven Spielberg was shamed in 1985 for making The Color Purple (white director, black characters), it would be 24 years before another film with a predominantly black ensemble would be nominated for Best Picture. Do the Right Thing was shut out for Best Picture (earning just two nods, one for screenplay and one for Supporting Actor). Stories of racism after The Color Purple were either segregated for black audiences only or else trying to break through to the Oscar race and the power dynamic but not being somehow “right” enough for critics (almost all white and male) nor industry voters nor white audiences. So when Lee Daniels made history with Precious it was one of the first times a black director had made a movie that was “approved” by the gauntlet — critics, audiences, voters. Still, that movie was criticized for being a negative portrayal of black characters. The accusations of racism at the Oscars emerged once it seemed like there was a distinct pattern for black actors winning Oscars: they had to turn “bad.” With the exception of Jamie Foxx and perhaps Halle Berry, the voters tended to acknowledge black characters who were comfortable stereotypes — for instance, Denzel Washington steals drug money, a corrupt cop tangled up with drugs dealers.
Whether that was a fair accusation or not, it was perpetuated on through 2011 with Tate Taylor’s wildly successful The Help. Because the characters in the film were maids living amid racial oppression, the film’s success was bittersweet. The black community complained about the film. The white community complained. And honestly, the only people who really took the brunt of those complaints were the talent involved, specifically, Viola Davis, who came very close to becoming only the second African American actress in 85 years of Oscar history to win lead.
But just as Obama’s presidency seemed to wash away hundreds of years of racial oppression, this year, the success of Ryan Coogler and Lee Daniels seem to have washed away decades of a racial divide in Hollywood, specifically in the Oscar race. We can throw Steve McQueen into the mix, although his position is unique. (More on that later).
Beyond the artistic achievement of these directors, each of their three films tell of pivotal points in black American history. But they also seem to confront Hollywood’s telling of that history. Interestingly, Fruitvale Station, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave directly address the absence of truth, and the persistent problem of looking at black history through the eyes of white storytellers. In fact, these films could be played as a trilogy — the ghosts of our American past and present.
Steve McQueen isn’t an African American filmmaker. He hasn’t been subject to the same limitations or roadblocks that many young black men in America face growing up. McQueen is a fluid, free storyteller who doesn’t factor race much into his work. He is anything but an “angry black man.” In fact, it probably confuses him a little bit that American journalists keep talking about race. America is so far behind in this and many other ways that it must boggle the mind of the international community at times.
And yet, McQueen is telling the story of a free man sold into slavery — and because he had a supportive team of producers financing his vision, he didn’t have to dumb it down or soften it. Spike Lee calls American slavery a “holocaust.” Yet, how many major motion pictures have ever been released that really tell the whole story? In Oscar history one of the most popular winners to ever take the top prize was Gone with the Wind, which told the story of the Civil War without even addressing slavery. The reason is that in early Hollywood, if you were black, you couldn’t get a part that wasn’t a yassir/nossir role of being a tap dancing entertainer, a singer or a servant. How many decades did this go on?
12 Years a Slave is finally an answer to 1939’s Gone withe Wind. Women used as sex slaves, human beings beaten so hard with a whip that their backs look like clay imprinted with wooden stick prints. It is appropriately repulsive, ugly and unequivocal. By contrast, we are meant to mourn the demise of the South in Gone with the Wind, a kind of defensive point of view that is still alive today.
As soon as America woke from the nightmare of sanctioned slavery the country entered a second stupefied trance of institutionalized racism. The Reconstruction Era birthed the KKK and the white power movement that would eventually put in place Jim Crow laws that prevented black people from being treated equally. They couldn’t even drink from the same drinking fountains, attend the same schools or ride the same buses. Worse, the Jim Crow era created a prejudicial system that sought to criminalize generations of black men — arrested for some nonsensical crime and then imprisoned to work as free labor.
Slavery was bad enough, but what followed is another set of sins for which must now atone. Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells the story of the legacy of those Jim Crow laws — and the birth of the Civil Rights movement, which didn’t really become a powerful force until the 1960s in America. Think about how long it was between the end of slavery to 1968? It took a century and another bloody fight before black Americans began to have equal rights. It took a President ordering military backup to allow black kids to attend white schools. Black citizens finally got the right to vote by putting themselves in harm’s way, many of them dying for the cause. Lee Daniels tells this history in a way White Hollywood never has.
Oh, sure. There have been many stories told of the civil rights era — there’s Mississippi Burning where the white FBI guys come in and kick shit-kicker ass. That film, which is very good by the way, is similar to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which again, gets whites off the hook with a revenge fantasy. Is that what we’re looking for? To be let off the hook? Traditionally, that has been Hollywood’s way of informing audiences of what the Civil Rights movement was all about.
Tufts University civil rights professor Dr. Peniel E. Joseph, whose books include “Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America” and “Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Obama,” wrote an essay about Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
When it comes to America’s tortured racial history, the cinematic approach has been to let white characters speak for, about, and in lieu of blacks. The 1989 film “Mississippi Burning” invented two white protagonists (one of whom was an FBI agent) to save the day during 1964’s bloody but triumphant Freedom Summer (an effort at interracial democracy in the south that featured hundreds of white volunteers), even though the law enforcement sided with white terrorists during the events the film depicts.
Rather than allowing black activists — such as Stokely Carmichael who led Greenwood, Mississippi’s local project that summer — to speak, the film obscenely invented a scenario that cast villains as saviors and portrayed genuine heroes as helpless victims. “Mississippi Burning” sparked rightful outrage from activists and historians for willful dissemblance in changing the heroes of Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Summer from black students and white volunteers to white FBI agents.
In contrast, “The Butler” presents a depiction of civil rights era violence that’s powerful and moving. It’s also unusual, since Hollywood has studiously avoided a film that accurately explores racial violence during the 1960s.
The Butler is a story of the transformation out of the yassir/nossir method of coping and into the activist mindset. It is an explanation for why everybody is always talking about racism, why it is such a big deal that Obama got elected at all, let alone that he’s serving two terms. The Butler eclipses so many Hollywood movies that attempt to tell the same story from the white point of view.
“At its best, “The Butler” offers a textured look at the story of a working class black man and the steep personal cost paid in order to raise a family during the age of racial apartheid in America. Malcolm X’s famous distillation of Field Negroes vs. House Negroes undergoes a searing reexamination in Daniels’s film, as Lewis comes to view his father’s discipline and sacrifice through more compassionate eyes.”
Finally, we get to Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. Young Mr. Coogler is representative of the new wave of African American auteurs in Hollywood, alongside Ava DuVernay, following in the footsteps of the pioneers, like Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier and John Singleton. Fruitvale Station extends the stories of McQueen and Daniels to talk about America here and now.
What is happening now in America is the third wave of the same fight. The Obama presidency has picked the scab of festering racism in this country — bigots no longer burning crosses on lawns but still cowered in fear and tinged with resentment at the prospect of black empowerment. Just Obama’s mere presence as a leader has caused multitudes to act like lunatics. The Tea Party was born ostensibly to gripe about taxes but it masks new breed of seething racism.
In Fruitvale Station, Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar Grant, living free in America — in a country where segregation has been shot down. In a country where the Voting Rights Act had long since past. Sure, growing up in Oakland, CA for any young black man isn’t easy. Grant isn’t perfect. He makes many mistakes but basically he’s a good guy. And yet, the mere appearance of his skin color already marks him as a target for police — the same mantra I keep reading on right wing websites and on Twitter with reference to Trayvon Martin: he’s a thug.
The beauty of Fruitvale Station, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave is that all three are ultimately imbued with optimism, not hatred. They offer hope in the end, even forgiveness. All three are stories of redemption, of lessons learned, of atonement by the oppressors. Forgiveness is the thing that ultimately sets you free. Do these stories, then, help all of us to forgive ourselves for our past?
So if 2013’s Oscar race is to be dominated by stories of our past, of the ongoing fight for racial equality, it will always be considered a cultural reflection of the Obama presidency. There is no getting around that fact. But Hollywood, too, must atone for its own failure at telling the truth, and its failure to fortify the foundation that enables filmmakers like these to flourish. The American film industry will keep getting owned by the international film community where people like Steve McQueen are encouraged, not discouraged.
When I started my website in 1999, no black actress had ever won lead in all of Oscar history. No woman director had ever won Picture and Director. And no black director had won, and back then, only one had ever been nominated. In the 15 years hence, I’ve seen a lot of dramatic change but it’s nowhere near enough. Even still, if it all ended after this year I could walk away mostly satisfied that the Oscar race is fluid, power can be shifted and great works can emerge if enough people look out for them, stand up for them, fight for them.
With so many exceptional works competing in this year’s Oscar race it’s hard to make a case for complaining. It will also be hard to find a winner, the one film that unify the giant monolith of industry voters. It will only be partly about the movie itself; much of the success will depend on the “Oscar story,” the personalities of those headed for the win, and how voters feel when they bestow their gifts.
The story of 2013 might not even be told through the Oscar race, but in the way perceptions shift, even a little. Light let into dark rooms, hope where there has only been quiet resignation, a past and a present well told. Only the future remains untold. It waits like a winged bird on the edge of everything that came before, no other choice but to take flight into a limitless horizon.