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.
The most exciting aspect, then, of 2013’s resurgence has been the high quality of black-centered films and the corresponding depth and breadth of their portrayal of the black experience at the local (Fruitvale Station), national (12 Years a Slave and The Butler) and global (Mandela) levels.
Yet despite this optimism, the nagging feeling that this is part of the cyclical pattern of feast and famine regarding black films will remain a troubling reality of our cultural landscape until more African Americans attain the power to create films of their own.
The ability to write, direct and act in a movie is surpassed by the power to finance certain scripts and themes. Major studios are, of course, interested in profit, but also motivated by issues and stories that resonate with their own cultural backgrounds and personal interests. Black films for the most part appear to stand outside of these interests, even as the African-American experience remains at the heart, for better and worse, of our national saga. Ultimately, movies about slavery, civil rights and the ordinary lives of working-class black Americans should not be once-in-a-decade events that garner extraordinary attention. They are part of the very fabric of not only the black experience, but the American one as well.
And at this year’s Golden Globe Awards, that experience will be well recognized.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published in 2014 by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.