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Amid Obama presidency, films take major leap in facing race head-on

Essay: A potent year for African American stories ('12 Years a Slave,' 'The Butler,' 'Fruitvale Station') marks an especially candid film era in the Obama years.

September 12, 2013|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Films like "Fruitvale Station" mark a candid shift in how films deal with race in the Obama era.
Films like "Fruitvale Station" mark a candid shift in how films… (Ron Koeberer, Weinstein…)

TORONTO — Watching Steve McQueen's achingly brilliant "12 Years a Slave" at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was struck by many things. The film's artistry — script, performances, imagery — is significant. The movie is beautifully, painfully wrought at every turn.

But in a larger sense, it stands as a striking testament to how much the texture and tenor of conversations about race have changed through the prism of film in the years since Barack Obama took office.

Quite simply there are more movies that specifically address black-white friction in modern terms — the many shades of human interaction more starkly framed by the color of one's skin.

WATCH: Toronto Film Festival trailers

No niche movies these. Filmmakers are seeking to touch, and turn, the heart, mind and conscience of mainstream audiences using language that is raw, candid, confrontational. For all the truth-telling, the subtext is concerned with illuminating the dynamics of the discord, then unifying.

Where in the past there might have been a single prestige film about race in the equation, this year in addition to "12 Years," certain to be a major factor in the Oscar race, there is "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," "Fruitvale Station," "The Butler" and "42," among others.

This is not to dismiss the legacy of earlier films. "Do the Right Thing" in 1989 and others in Spike Lee's rich library, Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple" in 1985, "Mississippi Burning" in 1988, 2004's multicultural racial clash in "Crash" and nearly everything in Sidney Poitier's oeuvre all made powerful statements. But no sweeping traction was achieved.

Instead, Hollywood continued with business as usual. There was the occasional A-list film. Studios were also quick to draft exceptional African American talent for mainstream movies, making stars of Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry, Eddie Murphy and many others in the process. And there were "black" films targeted to appeal to "black" audiences. Tyler Perry's Madea has pretty much owned the genre in recent years.

The seeds of this latest change germinated in Obama's very visible presence on the campaign trail. As his face dominated the images of the day, week after week, and the idea that he might lead our country took hold, the gears in Hollywood began to shift. Much of the movie industry's success, after all, is tied to making the right bets, predicting what moviegoers will want to see. Will pay to see.

PHOTOS: Toronto Film Festival 2013

Often independent filmmakers get to the right conclusions before the studios. For me, the demarcation line begins in January 2009, when director Lee Daniels' powerfully acidic "Precious," adapted by Geoffrey Fletcher from Sapphire's novel, rocked the Sundance Film Festival. It is not a pretty picture — Precious was an obese teen, pregnant by rape, her mother's boyfriend the father. In her mother, an Oscar-winning performance by Mo'Nique, Daniels exposed all the rage that entrenched poverty can churn up, all the self-loathing.

It's the kind of movie Hollywood would never make, would never believe might succeed. And yet it did. Critical acclaim, six Oscar nominations, two wins, a strong box office run that kept it in theaters far longer than anyone had expected. It sparked a great deal of debate within studios about the prospects for other challenging projects.

The conversation began to intensify, the texture of the stories on screen began changing. Later in 2009 "The Blind Side," which earned Sandra Bullock an Oscar, looked white guilt right in the face. But black faces were still supporting players, race the backdrop. Whatever its flaws, the race-based story had audiences filling theaters, and the economic upside made the industry take notice.

In 2011's "The Help," a story of segregation's last gasps, Emma Stone's Skeeter was central, but the villains were white and the voices of dissent and empowerment raised belonged to African American maids. Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for her performance.

The irony of black help raising the South's next generation of white children as Mississippi burned was the spine of the film. Once again theaters filled, black and white moviegoers debated and Hollywood took note.

This fall Daniels is back with a much subtler but no less powerful film in "The Butler." Based on the long tenure of an African American man who served a series of presidents in the White House during seminal years of desegregation, it stars racial conflict. Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and the rest of the cast are really in supporting roles. Danny Strong's script is filled with fine-spun dialogue that hones in on shifting attitudes about identity and entitlement. Like "Precious," the film is told from an African American point of view. Unlike "Precious," it was designed and destined for the mainstream market and an awards run.

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