Black American cinema is more prominent than ever this year – but just how transgressive is the material?
This is a man’s world – a white man’s world to be precise, which is why you might be taken aback by the abundance of black-themed movies making the waves in Hollywood this year. But the films in question could be more problematic than they seem at face value: is black cinema in Hollywood only limited to biopics about inspirational figures (or even Machiavellian – see The Last King of Scotland) and victims from tragic historical events? In essence: where are the representations of ordinary people?
Of course, the one on everybody’s saliva-drenched lips is the highly anticipated, inevitable Oscar magnet, Twelve Years a Slave. Aesthetically, director Steve McQueen veers into completely new territory; a far cry from his previous minimalistic roots displayed in Hunger and Shame, his third feature film is undoubtedly on a much grander scale. But it is yet another film for McQueen to add to his burgeoning oeuvre, all of which noticeably focus on controversial social issues. Twelve Years a Slave concentrates on a middle-class black man named Solomon Northup who is sold into slavery during the American Civil War. However, it appears that McQueen has retained the grace and intelligence of his previous films, which makes for a fascinating, if very unpredictable career trajectory.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler had proven less impactful critically, but commercially, it’s impact is undeniable. Perhaps one could chalk that down to the exponentially influential Oprah Winfrey starring in the film, right? Daniels’ previous film Precious, has proven to be one of few exceptions to the rule as Precious is very much more of a ‘slice-of-life’ offering with a dollop of surrealism. The colloquial named heroine of the piece, Precious, is unequivocally fictional particularly when placed beside heavyweight giants Solomon Northup and particularly Nelson Mandela, who is also being portrayed this year by Idris Elba.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, is a film about, of course, the titular South African leader Nelson Mandela. Mandela has been criticised for its lack of effort in attempting to challenge the formulaic ‘biopic’. Critics suggested that it is too linear and colourless for a story of such colossal magnitude. As a result, it may seem a bit too inconsequential to some. Released just a few months ago in the United States, another biopic surrounding the Mandela legacy also emerged this time focusing on Mandela’s wife, Winnie played by Jennifer Hudson: the guilelessly titled Winnie; Terrence Howard takes on the role of Mandela. This isn’t the only ill-fated black-centric project for Ms. Hudson this year. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete was evidently overshadowed by the other black film at Sundance: Fruitvale Station. Oy.
[Fruitvale Station] was the Cinderella story at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
So that other black film, Fruitvale Station, yet another film based on a true story was the Cinderella story at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Rights for Fruitvale Station were subsequently acquired by Hollywood maestro Harvey Weinstein soon after being declared the obligatory Sundance sleeper hit, winning two of the top honours, the prestigious Grand Jury and Audience prizes. It had the perfect narrative: it’s a true story based on an undeniably tragic and all too familiar story; it very much captures the zeitgeist of the past year as evidenced by the untimely death of Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman trial that ensued; and most of all, the film has been lavished with plaudits from critics and audiences alike. So, yes, it is very much a successful year for black cinema providing many breakthrough performances from the likes of Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o.
How about a young black woman experiencing a sexual awakening? Does anybody want to see that?
On the contrary, films like Middle of Nowhere (aptly titled, sadly) and Pariah are worthy entries in the black cinema cannon, but it almost appears that nobody paid attention to them when they were released in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Perhaps it’s because they were about the ordinary black people facing universal struggles, and not films entirely restricted to the troubles of a black person. How about a young black woman experiencing a sexual awakening? Does anybody want to see that? Well, such is the focus in Pariah. Pariah is a film anchored by a beautiful central performance from Adepero Oduye; a performance of great temerity that compelled one Meryl Streep to single her out in an awards speech. But who of the general populace knows of her or the film? Completely overlooked. Now Middle of Nowhere and Pariah were deftly made, quietly nuanced pieces of cinema, and the aforementioned Precious, or even Beasts of the Southern Wild (one of last year’s best films) were to put it lightly… not. The latter two dealt with pressing social issues in a more visceral and (perhaps to some) overwrought manner compared to the former two.
Suffice to say, Spike Lee during his heyday filled this void that is so terribly needed today, and Tyler Perry is clearly not up for the task. (Interestingly, however, he did make a biopic of his own: Malcolm X). The aforementioned void referring to the lack of films surrounding real, contemporary black characters. The kind of characters that have the ability to transcend any race or religion. And no, one is not particularly averse to these larger-than-life characters (the more, the merrier) but hey, a little diversity would be appreciated.
Featured image: Fox Searchlight, inset images: Weinstein Co.