The critically lauded 12 Years a Slave has been nominated in several prestigious categories in this Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards—and the conspicuous presence of black directors, actors and films this awards season offers a chance to reflect on Hollywood’s tortured racial past and hopeful future.
The Golden Globes, which are dominated by the more liberal foreign press, unofficially begin an awards season that will formally conclude at the Academy Awards ceremony on March 2.
While in past years African Americans have rightfully complained about the lack of recognition in major awards categories, 2014 promises to be different. In addition to 12 Years a Slave, other major black films in the running for awards include the independently made Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Black men directed all except Mandela, and black screenwriter John Ridley penned the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave.
Black actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba, Forest Whitaker and Lupita Nyong’o have been singled out for praise by critics, and 12 Years topped virtually every major newspaper’s “Best Movie of the Year” category. These plaudits—justly deserved—prompt the question of whether we’re finally witnessing an enduring shift in Hollywood’s relationship to race. It’s a relationship that tends to run in cycles.
The historic wins for best actor and actress scored by Denzel Washington and Halle Berry in 2002 led some to prematurely celebrate a new era for blacks in Hollywood. But hopes that African Americans would compete for new opportunities proved too optimistic.
The recent success of The Best Man Holiday, the rare sequel (13 years after the original debuted) more successful than its progenitor, has led some to speak of a renaissance in black film.
But a brief history lesson is in order. Oscar Micheaux proved a pioneer of race films in the 1920s and 1930s. Auteurs such as Gordon Parks Sr. and Melvin Van Peebles ushered in a wave of independent black filmmaking in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Major studios quickly imitated the trend in the short-lived but still popular “blacksploitation” era, which introduced black urban staples like Shaft, Super Fly and The Mack to a generation of young people.
Spike Lee’s emergence during the late 1980s heralded a new wave of black filmmaking that was smart, edgy and fiercely independent. Lee’s films helped two generations of aspiring filmmakers: Veterans such as Charles Burnett (who directed 1977’s masterpiece Killer of Sheep) and Haile Gerima (Sankofa) found new opportunities to ply their craft, while directors ranging from Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) to the more popular John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) became the new face of black Hollywood.
This movement reached its peak in the ’90s and early aughts with a spate of movies (The Wood, Love Jones, Brown Sugar) that offered a panoramic spectrum of the black experience. Yet these opportunities given to black directors and actors appeared to vanish as quickly as they developed, victimized by poor box-office returns, studios overly eager to abandon “black projects” at the first sign of trouble and mediocre scripts and films.