Whenever a Black-themed film comes out, I get the call. And even more stops on the street. "Yo, man. What did you think of that flick?" The truth is, I wish folks would ask me what I think of some general releases. (My two favorite movies of the summer were comedies: Seth Rogen's This Is the End and Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine.) But, hey, I guess commenting on all things Black is my lot in life, being that I'm a recognizable African-American face in an industry that isn't exactly the gold standard when it comes to diversity. Like everything else in Hollywood, though, Black films tend to come in waves, and by some standards 2013 is turning into a banner year.
Nearly a dozen Black movies will be released before it's over. And with awards season just around the corner, three indie flicks are right in the mix: Ryan Coogler's remarkable and unquestionably authentic debut, Fruitvale Station; my friend Lee Daniels' The Butler, which has drawn a diverse crowd and topped the box office three weeks in a row; and the film everyone is waiting for, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave.
Hollywood's Black film community has always had a one-for-all-and-all-for-one attitude, openly cheering the success of any Black-driven movie in the hope its box-office success will translate into more jobs and stories about people of color. But, at the same time, the success of Black-themed movies like The Help and this year's 42 points to a troubling trend: the hiring of White filmmakers to tell Black stories with few African-Americans involved in the creative process.
The good news first: The Butler, a period drama inspired by a real-life White House butler, has grossed $100 million domestically to date. I'm sure more than a few studio execs checking Labor Day weekend grosses did a Buckwheat double take, like "What wuz dat?" — and that's not racist, 'cause I'm Black and I can say that. While 12 Years a Slave doesn't open until Oct. 18, I've seen it and can tell you it's a work of art. McQueen, who is Black and from the U.K., has created a raw, unflinching look at a Black man's descent into one of the darkest chapters of American history. It's as authentic as it gets. And there should be Oscar nods for McQueen; screenwriter John Ridley; lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives the performance of a lifetime; and, hopefully, Michael Fassbender, who plays the most compelling big-screen villain this year. (It should be noted 12 Years a Slave would not have seen the light of day if not for Brad Pitt, who produced the film and has a small but crucial role in it. There are few stars as big-hearted as Pitt with an interest in exploring challenging subjects. More should definitely follow his bold example.)
This past spring also saw the release of 42, which was written and directed by Brian Helgeland. I took my whole family to the theater and was happy to see that Jackie Robinson's inspiring story was well told. Newcomer Chadwick Boseman stepped up to the challenge of portraying Jackie, who seemed to carry the weight of an entire race on his shoulders. And I was delighted to see my childhood hero Harrison Ford in an underrated character performance as Branch Rickey. For me, Helgeland — with support from Jackie's widow, Rachel Robinson, who served as a consultant, and Black producer Darryl Pryor — hit it out of the park. 42 wasn't overly moralistic and didn't sugarcoat the hardships Robinson endured on and off the field while integrating Major League Baseball.
Yet I couldn't help but wonder how different Spike Lee's version of Jackie's story would've been had he gotten the financing to direct his planned biopic years ago when he had Denzel Washington attached to star. Lee envisioned going beyond Robinson's exploits on the diamond and dramatizing his later years as a businessman, prominent Republican and figurehead for racial equality.