Last month the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences took great strides in order to bring more diversity to its membership. Now will that effort affect the actual Oscar race itself? Certainly this year distributors, particularly The Weinstein Company and Fox Searchlight, are going to be giving the Academy every opportunity to put some diversity into that race, especially in terms of a major African- American presence. Beginning with this Friday’s platformed Weinstein release of the widely acclaimed Sundance and Cannes award winner, Fruitvale Station there is a highly promising lineup of films that seriously depict the Black experience to be released in the second half of 2013. And I am not talking about Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas.
This group of movies, which also includes the increasingly-controversial The Butler (8/16- Weinstein), 12 Years A Slave (10/18- Searchlight), Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom (11/29 – Weinstein), Black Nativity (11/27 – Searchlight), Blue Caprice starring Isaiah Washington (IFC – 9/13), the recently -released documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom (Radius-TWC) and (far less likely) even the long-delayed Winnie Mandela (Image Entertainment) starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard now being released in September, provide a bountiful opportunity to let the Academy show off its new spirit of diversity, not that they have been completely dormant in that area in recent years. Of course 2012’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild made the most recent Best Picture cut and won its 9 year old star Quvenzhane Wallis a Best Actress nomination. And Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar winning Original Screenplay for another 2012 Best Pic nominee, Django Unchained had a unique take on slavery. Two years ago the box office success of The Help propelled it towards a Best Picture nomination and acting nods for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the latter winning for Best Supporting Actress. And just four years ago Precious won a couple of key Oscars for Supporting Actress Monique and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher as well as Best Picture and Directing (for Lee Daniels) nominations.
But there’s something in the air this year, a year that could well produce serious potential African American Best Actor nominees in Idris Elba (Mandela), Chewitel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave), Forest Whitaker (The Butler) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale), and let’s not forget the fine work earlier this year of Chadwick Boseman who played Jackie Robinson in 42. There are also strong women’s roles in these films so don’t discount Mandela’s Naomie Harris, Oprah Winfrey’s screen return in The Butler, and Octavia Spencer’s brief, but powerful work in Fruitvale. Since the majority of these films are yet to be screened this list may just be partial. Significantly several of these contenders are actually directed by African-Americans, which of course was not always the case before.
Certainly timing is conspiring to help the box office chances of this crop. Nelson Mandela’s headline-makng health problems could just add to interest in the pair of projects relating to his life due for release. Image Entertainment, which announced its acquisition of U.S. rights for Winnie Mandela recently in Cannes, sensed this and is now finally putting that film into theaters on September 6th after seeing it wane on the shelf since a less-than-auspicious debut (then known as Winnie) at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival. Critics weren’t kind. It was re-cut and did play briefly in Canada last year under the original title. Undoubtedly Image wants to beat the more highly anticipated Weinstein film Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom into theatres.
Apart from Winnie Mandela which stands little chance of gaining any awards traction, the ultimate box office fate of these movies will likely also impact their chances with Oscar voters to a degree. But clearly the success of The Help has increased the enthusiasm and hopes of their distributors. In fact Weinstein moved up its release of the title-challenged The Butler from October to August 16, around the same time The Help was released in 2011. The thinking being ‘if it worked for them, it can work for us’. And as we saw the late summer slot wasn’t a hindrance to the ultimate Oscar success of that film which earned 8 nominations. Harvey Weinstein was very confident when we spoke in Cannes. “My mom and especially my mom’s group, they will go, especially to see Oprah. It’s really good. It’s a Lee Daniels film with his signature and it’s tough and smart,” he said after the company’s overall presentation. When one journalist asked him specifically about potentially having three black-themed films in the Oscar race, he dismissed it by saying that aspect never occurred to him. In other words each movie stands on its own as cinema, not a bid for diversity. Of course he must be relishing the publicity opportunity the Warner Bros dust-up over the film’s title is offering the company. For a serious summer release that chronicles the history of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of a White House butler awareness is obviously key, and whatever the eventual outcome (I don’t know why they can’t just call it “A Butler”) this constant attention can’t hurt. The “David vs. Goliath” scenario Harvey is trying to present may even eventually work to his benefit with Oscar voters too who could feel the well-intentioned film was being used as a pawn by a big studio up to corporate chicanery. Harvey as the “little guy”? You gotta love this business.
Director Steve McQueen’s (Shame) 12 Years A Slave is definitely a highly-anticipated title, and a centerpiece of Fox Searchlight’s Oscar campaign this year thanks to a cast that, in addition to Ejiofor, includes Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Kenneth Williams among many others. Based on the autobiography by Solomon Northup it tells his story with great emotion I am told by one person who saw an early cut. Searchlight also has the Christmas-themed musical drama, Black Nativity based on the Langston Hughes play. It comes from director Kasi Lemmons with another starry cast including Whitaker, Hudson, Angela Bassett and Mary J. Blige. Between this film, his starring role in The Butler and as a producer of Fruitvale Station, it appears Whitaker is going to be especially visible this season. He’s also been rumored as the potential star of director Paul Greengrass’ Memphis, the long-gestating story of the final days of Martin Luther King, which my colleague Mike Fleming initially reported is finding renewed life (thanks to Veritas and Wild Bunch after Universal dropped it) in an industry that thankfully seems willing to take serious African American-themed projects and give them the respect they deserve.
Oscar, are you listening?