2013 might be considered a great year for black people in cinema. “42,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” and the newly released “12 Years a Slave” all put different eras of the American black experience to film, with the latter two receiving raves and awards buzz.
In a year which saw racial tensions spike over the George Zimmerman trial, it is understandable that the four films released that gave the most screen time to people of color dealt explicitly with racism in America’s past, both from an optimistic and tragic point of view. Some could look on 2013 as the year in which black cinema re-emerged in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case.
The main problem with Hollywood’s depictions of race is that, despite it being 2013, black faces are still incredibly hard to come by in any film that does not deal with blackness as a theme in and of itself. Below is a list of major 2013 releases with black leads that are not explicitly about race.
- "After Earth" (Jaden Smith)
- "2 Guns" (Denzel Washington)
- "A Haunted House" (Marlon Wayans)
- "Peeples" (Craig Robinson)
- "Temptation" (Jurnee Smollett)
- "LUV" (Various)
- "Baggage Claim" (Various)
That’s it (at least to this point). Seriously. If you count some major supporting roles, you can include Don Cheadle in “Iron Man 3,” Morgan Freeman in “Oblivion” and “Now You See Me,” Common in “Now You See Me,” Tyrese Gibson in “Fast and Furious 6,” Zoe Saldana in “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” and Robinson in “This Is the End,” as well as Anthony Mackie’s supporting roles in four major films.
That gives Hollywood a grand total of 17 films so far this year with a middling-to-strong black presence. Of those, three were sequels where the black character had already been in a previous film, two were produced by Tyler Perry, and two starred either Hollywood royalty (Washington) or the son of royalty (Smith).
But even taking the 17 films at face value, that makes it 17 out of 224 films that will have been released (either limited or wide) when “12 Years a Slave” opens which have any black presence without specifically being about blackness.
That is, in a word, unacceptable.
This is not to disparage the films that deal with historical issues of race. However commercial or backhanded they may appear, movies like “The Help” or “Remember the Titans,” are able to offer interesting insights into the mistakes and triumphs of our past, and can be inspiring and harrowing.
But no one goes to see “12 Years a Slave” thinking slavery was right and comes out thinking it’s wrong. No one sees “42” and roots for Jackie Robinson to fail. White people can see these movies, have a good cry, and think themselves nothing like the evil white people they see on screen (or identify themselves with the good ones), only to then see another twenty movies without realizing there is nary a black face to be found. These movies can’t truly change modern public perception of race because the issues they deal with are all accepted as terrible. Yes, forty years ago, Roots was revolutionary, a pinnacle of entertainment and history that showed white America a story they might actually not have ever known. Today, those issues are taught in grade school.
Hollywood can be an agent of change, but not just by releasing anti-slavery movies; they can simply put more black faces in major motion pictures. Instead, Hollywood gets away with producing “message” movies every few years about race, nominates the best of those for Oscars, and doesn’t address the problems with the system itself.
Just look at those Oscars. Since 1993, only three movies have been nominated for Best Picture that did not deal explicitly with race and yet featured a black lead, and two happened to come in the same year: 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption”; and last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which was made far outside the studio system. A case can be made for some other movies: “Jerry Maguire,” though it mainly focused on its white protagonist and his white love interest; “Traffic,” though it was more of an ensemble cast; “Ray,” which dealt with race but was more of a character study; and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which boasted two white stars but did somewhat focus on a black family and community. Still, “Pulp Fiction” and “Shawshank” are the only two clear-cut examples.
Other than those, the films nominated with black leads were “The Green Mile,” “Crash,” “The Blind Side,” “Precious,” “The Help,” and “Django Unchained,” all movies that dealt explicitly with the race of the main characters (at least I think that’s what “Crash” was about, it’s hard to tell with a film so subtle). Notably, in each movie except for “Precious,” a white character either had equal or more screen time than the black protagonist(s).
People wonder why Tyler Perry is so successful, and the answer is in front of their faces. Or rather, it’s not. Hollywood largely ignores an entire population of moviegoers every year, and then tries to galvanize around any “important” movie that is released. Often, it will fawn over one talented black actor (this year, it’s “Frutivale’s” Michael B. Jordan!) and make him a star (he’s in talks for “Independence Day Forever” and “The Fantastic Four”, and has already signed on as the lead for Rocky spinoff “Creed”), giving the illusion of diversification.
I’m not asking for affirmative action for black actors. I’m asking for realism. If Hollywood really wants to be progressive, they shouldn’t release movies that don’t aspire to do anything beyond reiterating the obvious. Instead of reducing race relations to a problem that could fit within a line of Hulk dialogue (“Racism... BAD!”) , make Bruce Banner black (you know, until he gets angry).
“12 Years a Slave” is a great movie that I hope gets Chiwetel Ejiofor, a talented and under-appreciated actor, an Oscar nod. But right now, black actors don’t need more Oscars: they need more opportunities.
Steve McQueen, a black man and the film’s director, last made a film called “Shame.” That we still have to have a discussion about black representation in Hollywood over 150 years after the period of “12 Years” is about as shameful as it gets.