High Oscar hopes for black filmmakers and actors

05:00 AM, Sep 15, 2013

Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker and director Lee Daniels on the set of 'The Butler,' which could earn all three Oscar nominations. Anne Marie Fox, The Weinstein Co./


Written By by Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY

The Toronto Film Festival served as an awards springboard for films such as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom with Idris Elba.

Add celebrated performances in this summer’s Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and the message is clear: The 2013 awards season could shape up to be banner year for black actors and filmmakers.

They have knocked the ball out of the park in Toronto,” says Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association. “This is shaping up to be the best year in recent memory for directors and actors of African descent. It’s exciting. Maybe this speaks to a new day.”

Robertson points out that the heat started in earnest with the widely praised box-office hit 42, which starred Chadwick Boseman as baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson. The film’s momentum started when it opened at No. 1 one with $27 million in April en route to a $95 million haul. Boseman is an outside contender for best-actor nominations.

The roll continued with The Butler, which shocked pundits by landing atop the box office for three weeks in a row in August. That added fuel to the awards buzz for director Daniels and marquee stars Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker.

This year, it’s the critical meeting the commercial,” Robertson says. “That’s the dream.”

Tom O’Neil, editor of awards website Goldderby.com says it’s clear that the studios have the belief, and the war chest, to support many of these films in the awards race to come.

The Oscar establishment is showing real confidence in these African-American films. They are very strong players in the game,” he says. “They are positioning these movies for lengthy Oscar runs, and to this extent, it’s unique this year.”

Harvey Weinstein, whose Oscar-powerhouse company is distributing Mandela and The Butler, called the number of prominent black projects “a renaissance.” Speaking to industry website The Wrap, he cited “the Obama effect” for “erasing racial lines.”

Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler, who credits producer Whitaker as a major mentor who made his film possible, doesn’t dwell on the color issue. “But I do know there’s definitely some exciting work out there.”

Here’s a breakdown of the early front-runners:

Lee Daniels’ The Butler’

Daniels is contending for director, with Whitaker and Winfrey seek acting nominations in the story of White House butler Cecil Gaines, who served eight presidents, and his devoted wife.

O’Neil goes so far to say “the best-supporting-actress race is already over. Oprah has that in the bag.”

David Oyelowo and Cuba Gooding Jr. are also in the running for supporting actor.

In terms of best-picture possibilities, O’Neil says The Butler has the box-office clout and the “warm, fuzzy story line that registers with academy voters emotionally.”

It’s a shoo-in for a nomination and a viable contender,” O’Neil says. “It’s pulling off a surprise at the box office. Can it pull off an Oscar surprise?”

12 Years a Slave’

Based on the real-life story of a free black man forced into brutal slavery, McQueen’s movie has stunned audiences and garnered glowing reviews at last month’s Telluride Film Festival, a key awards gathering, and in Toronto, where it won the People’s Choice Award, the festival’s top prize.

O’Neil says to look for nominations for best picture, director and its lead actor, Britain’s Chiwetel Ejiofor. Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o also could be a contender for best supporting actress.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’

Pete Hammond of trade website Deadline.com says the biopic of the former South African president got a standing ovation in Toronto. Elba and supporting actress Naomie Harris, who plays Winnie Mandela, “have real shots” at Oscar races.

As for a best-picture nomination, “it’s an important subject matter and told earnestly,” Hammond says. “And that’s the kind of thing academy voters gravitate toward.”

Fruitvale Station’

The first effort from Coogler, 27, about the final hours of Oscar Grant, who was shot down by transit police in 2008, has won plaudits from the Sundance Film Festival to Cannes. It’s also looking to be a contender during awards season for best picture, director, the charismatic Michael B. Jordan as best actor and Octavia Spencer as supporting actress.

Every year, there’s a gritty indie movie in the mix,” O’Neil says. “It looks like it might be this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild or Winter’s Bone.”

All told, Hammond says there’s a scenario where the best-actor and supporting-actress categories include four of five actors of color.

There has never been a situation like this,” he says. “There’s a realistic shot to have a historic event this year. It’s already been quite a year in that regard.”