News Column

Is 2013's box-office diversity progress or fluke?

November 20, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 20--It started with Jackie Robinson rounding the bases for home in 42 in the spring and is ending with Nelson Mandela leaving jail for home in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in the winter. In between, there have been so many black-themed films that have reached a crossover audience that 2013 is going to go down as a banner year for black actors and directors.

Lee Daniels' The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station and, to a lesser extent, 42 were critically well-received, but the kicker is that they also performed well at the box office. Together, The Butler and 42 brought in more than $200 million.

Along with the upcoming Black Nativity, a Christmas-themed musical based on the work of poet Langston Hughes that stars Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson, and Mandela starring Idris Elba, there is so much Oscar buzz around these films that this may be the year of the rarest of occurrences: multiple black Oscar nominees in multiple categories.

The result could be that the 2014 show overshadows previous years that were pointed to as racial breakthroughs: 2001 (when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry took acting honors for Training Day and Monster's Ball, respectively), 2005 (statues for Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman for Ray and Million Dollar Baby) and 2006 (wins for Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker for Dreamgirls and The Last King of Scotland).

The likes of Elba and 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o may become household names by the time the Oscars statues are handed out in March. There's a chance, however slim, that there could be three African-Americans up for Best Director: Steve McQueen ( 12 Years a Slave), Lee Daniels ( The Butler) and Ryan Coogler ( Fruitvale Station).

"In terms of what's hot in the marketplace, you have to be looking at African-American films," says Jeff Bock of Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations, a box-office tracking firm. "They are pretty hot in much the same way that low-budget horror films are really hot."

That's not even taking into account the continuing success of decidedly out-of-Oscar-contention movies from Tyler Perry (who has three films this year) or an escapist rom-com like The Best Man Holiday, which hauled in $30.5 million in its opening weekend last week, not far behind the much more expensive Thor: The Dark World.

For Arthur Knight, a professor of American studies and English at the College of William and Mary who specializes in American cinema, the wave is very visible in his town of Williamsburg, Va.

"I can go see 12 Years a Slave or The Best Man Holiday and we have an art cinema where Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice [an indie film about the D.C. sniper attacks of 2002] played," he says. "That's unprecedented."

Tough topics

What's also striking about these movies' success is that at least two of them -- 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station -- deal with the difficult issues of slavery and a police murder of an unarmed black man, leaving the audience to feel the cultural reverberations that stem from these conflicts. Slave is especially tough to watch, yet it's drawing a wide audience, pulling in $25 million in what was at first a limited release.

Why this surge of interest from various crowds in black-themed films is happening now -- at a time when there seems to be so much racial division in the political and social spheres -- may be for a variety of reasons.

In fact, Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic and author of a recent book about media and race, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, thinks that racial gap may not be as wide as it's often portrayed.

"I've been going across the country to support my book and there are a lot of people [of all races] who want to talk about this stuff and want to deal with it," he says.

Amy Corbin, a professor of media, communication and film studies at Allentown, Pa.'s Muhlenberg College, partially credits the star connections of Oprah Winfrey (who stars in The Butler) and Brad Pitt (who co-produced and plays a small part in 12 Years a Slave).

"Their star power allows some of those films to gain prominence," she says. "With Fruitvale Station, that would not have gotten the attention that it got if it weren't for some of the racial issues being discussed right now with the incarcerations [of young black men] and the Trayvon Martin case. Every year, there are good films made by African-Americans that don't get released or just play the festivals. Fruitvale might have been one of those, but its timing was good."

Forest Whitaker told the Associated Press that these films are sparking conversation after the lights go up in the theater. "Dialogue is occurring," he said. "People are taking their points of view about how they see their environment, their world. All of these films are engaging in that dialogue."

But Knight believes that what he calls "the niche-ing of America" may make the roles these movies play in our national conversation less significant.

"Sometimes we think about a movie and we think everybody goes. The last time that happened was in the late '50s. We still have that model that if it's in the movie theaters, that a cross-section of America is seeing it, and I don't think that's true," he says. "I suspect that a lot of the people seeing these films, that crossover audience, are on the side of the political schism in the U.S. that seems to be more in line and sympathetic to African-American concerns. I suspect that the white audience that's going to Slave is more Obama Democrats than Tea Partiers. That's not to say some Tea Partiers aren't seeing it, but it would be a small sliver of that audience."

Mostly, though, it could come down to the fact that they are good stories well-told. "I've seen Slave twice. I think it's a masterpiece," says Ya'Ke Smith, an art and art history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who is also a filmmaker. "Steve McQueen has made something like we've never seen before."

Past as present

Yet as uncomfortable as a film like 12 Years a Slave might be, audiences can distance themselves from its horror by assuring themselves that those events happened a long time ago. The same with 42 and The Butler, the story of a black servant who worked in the White House for several presidents. Aside from Fruitvale Station, the world of contemporary African-Americans remains underexplored in current dramas.

"We're much more ready to look back and say things were bad 50 years ago or 200 years ago, but can we talk about what's happening right now?" asks Deggans. "That's another challenge."

The current crop of movies dealing with African-American history follow on the heels of such recent films as Django Unchained in 2012 (set in the antebellum South) and The Help in 2011 (set in 1960s South).

Whether all of this is indicative of a sea change in Hollywood regarding films about or by blacks remains a question.

"So often we've seen with something like Roots [in the '70s] and a movie like Do the Right Thing [in the '80s], it catches the eye of the pop-culture world, but it's not the beginning of something," says Deggans. "It's a fluke."

Winfrey expressed similar sentiments to the Associated Press in talking about The Butler. "I don't want it to be, 'Oh, gee, we had the 10 films and now it's another five years before you see another one.'"

Carey Latimore, a professor and chair of history at San Antonio's Trinity University, thinks what's happening now "is a temporary blip." "Considering the fact that Obama is president and race issues are in the news, the market for these movies may be high," he says via email.

Box-office analyst Bock says, looking ahead to 2014, the cupboard's not so full. "We're not seeing the same amount of films," he says. "But if these are hits, then we might see it in 2015 again."

Knight adds that as the studios' summer-blockbuster business model starts to break down, it may open the door for films from the fringes. "Studios are starting to worry about their reliance on blockbusters and are willing to work more around the margins," he says. "Even though the independent landscape isn't as vibrant as it may have been, some of those smaller producers that are affiliated with studios are being given some latitude. And there are more sources for funding, like crowdfunding, and other mechanisms, like video on demand."

Latimore says what's happening on the small screen, specifically ABC's popular show Scandal starring Kerry Washington, might be instructive.

" Scandal has a great crossover effect," he says. "I guess the question is whether this will lead to more exposure of African-Americans in general and, more specifically, if it will lead to increased exposure of the conditions within the African-American community."

Deggans is cautiously optimistic. "I remember doing a story on the anniversary of Roots and a lot of the actors, after being in this TV event, couldn't get a job after. It was inexplicable to me," he remembers. "This doesn't feel like that. It feels like people are realizing that there is business to be had and stories to be told and they will make a lot of money."

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