It may have been mere coincidence that 50 years to the month after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream, a movie starring a black man, directed by a black man, and surveying the rise of the modern civil rights movement would take the top spot at the box office.
But that’s exactly what “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” did last weekend, raking in nearly $25 million without the aid of superheroes, aliens or teen vampires. That would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.
Then again, a lot would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. Which is why Dr. King’s legacy, his most famous speech and the March on Washington are being celebrated today and for the next several days until the actual anniversary — Wednesday.
We have moved forward. Not far enough, not fast enough. But Dr. King’s spirit carries on.
In truth, a serious film about the black experience achieving such success would be unthinkable in too many of the years since that historic march. But 2013 may turn out to be a high water mark when it comes to black films and filmmakers.
At this point we’ve had two black-themed films garner serious Oscar buzz — “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station,” the true story of a young black man who was shot to death by a police officer in Oakland for no good reason, the first film from writer-director Ryan Coogler, himself a young black man of 27.
In September, at the annual Toronto International Film Festival, two more films will debut that will likely generate more Oscar buzz: “12 Years a Slave,” the story of a free black man in the pre-Civil War United States who is abducted and enslaved; and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” a biopic about the South African leader. Those movies will star two fine British actors — Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba.
Sight unseen I’m betting “12 Years” — which co-stars Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael K. Williams and is directed by the black British visual artist Steve McQueen — will be a major player come Oscar time. At the very least it will be a factor, and Ejiofor could well be a surprise actor nominee.
And he could find himself competing with Oscar winner Forest Whitaker from “The Butler” and Michael B. Jordan, the star of “Fruitvale Station.” When was the last time it seemed likely three black men — none of them named Denzel — would be in the discussion for a best actor nomination? Try never.
For that matter, both Daniels and Coogler are being touted as potential best director nominees, and McQueen’s name may come into that mix. No black man has won the best director Oscar. Only two have ever been nominated — John Singleton in 1991 for “Boyz n the Hood” and Daniels in 2010 for “Precious.”
None of this may come to pass, of course; there are still a lot of movies and performances yet to come in 2013. But it’s certainly possible, and that’s noteworthy.
Understand, there have been many fine and popular films about the black experience over the decades, from “In the Heat of the Night” to “The Color Purple” to “The Help.” And there have been all sorts of broad comedies, inspirational stories and ghetto tales. Every year brings poignant films featuring blacks and crass films featuring blacks.
But this year’s crop — which might also include the Jackie Robinson biopic “42” from April and “Winnie Mandela,” which comes to Detroit Sept. 6 — seems a bit more serious, a bit more reflective and a lot more high profile.
It’s also noteworthy that all of these films are based on true stories. And all — no matter the time period or country in which they take place — deal with racial oppression, the very thing Dr. King dreamed he’d see the end of.
Obviously that hasn’t happened. And it would be nice to see more black directors and actors working comfortably in post-racial films, as does happen these days (witness Denzel Washington’s Oscar nomination for “Flight” last year, in a role that could have been played by a man of any color).
But this isn’t yet a post-racial world (op: nor will it ever be). Ask Trayvon Martin’s parents. Still, the fact that films will confront that fact this year shows progress is being made. Dr. King’s dream may not yet be fulfilled, but it lives on.
all these films but only will be in the running for america's next top token oscar nominee spot. would die if 2+ actors or films were nominated tho