In Hollywood, Black Is the New Black

The only film on this weekend’s box-office Top 10 that wasn’t on more than 2,000 screens was director Steve McQueen’s acclaimed 12 Years a Slave, which expanded from a little over 100 screens to 410 and earned an impressive $4.6 million. Even in its limited introduction, the slavery drama has earned $8.7 million so far and is already being held up as an Oscar front-runner. It’s set to start making a lot more money very soon with an expansion to about 1,000 theaters next week.

The film, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free man from New York who is abducted and sold into slavery in the South, may also wind up being the most prominent example of what has been, by all accounts, a remarkable year for movies dealing with the subject of race. It comes on the heels of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which has so far grossed $115 million and is also likely to be an Oscar contender. Earlier this year, meanwhile, the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 made $95 million, off a $40 million budget.

Even when films dealing with race haven’t made boatloads of money, they have managed to seize the cultural spotlight. The independent Fruitvale Station, with echoes of the Trayvon Martin shooting, found itself in theaters right around the time of the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial and became an important part of the conversation. (Fruitvale made around $16 million—a very respectable amount given its low budget and modest release.)

Thanks to films such as these and others, including Blue Caprice and the upcoming Black Nativity, this year “may go down in the scriptures as the greatest year for black actors, directors, and themes in Hollywood history,” Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott wrote recently. While politicians periodically call for national dialogues on race, he noted, only Hollywood appears to be heeding that call.

This hasn’t always been the case. For a long time, in fact, Hollywood was wary of the subject. Even as stars like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Will Smith became major players, their movies often shied away from tackling the issue; only occasionally would a film like Do the Right Thing or Boyz N the Hood break through. George Lucas, of all people, famously spent 23 years trying to make Red Tails, his film about the Tuskegee Airmen. Along the way, just about every Hollywood studio said no to the project over supposed concerns that the story’s all-black heroes would fail to resonate with “mainstream” audiences. (The film was finally released last year and made a relatively tepid $48 million at the box office, far less than the $100 million that Lucas is reputed to have spent making and marketing it.)

Lee Daniels, director of The Butler, also faced great difficulties as he tried to bring his film to the screen, even after the 2009 success of his Oscar-winning Precious, which made $47 million off a $10 million budget. “Hollywood would not allow me to make a black drama,” Daniels told the Los Angeles Times at the time of The Butler’s release.

While many had hoped that the election of Barack Obama could put away the issue of race for good, the opposite seems to have happened. If anything, the response to Obama’s presidency—from both the left and the right—has exposed many of the racial rifts still prevalent in our culture. “The visibility of the nation’s first African American president has made the issue of race visible throughout the culture, and one of the places we are seeing that is in Hollywood,” USC professor Todd Boyd told Reuters this summer.

Along the way, a number of films have demonstrated that there is money to be made in taking on this issue. Los Angeles Times film critic Betsy Sharkey notes that the box office success of Precious “sparked a great deal of debate within studios about the prospects for other challenging projects.” Last year saw films with racial themes like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained strike box office gold while scoring boatloads of Oscar nominations.

So what’s next? As 12 Years a Slave continues its lucrative run into late November, it will cross paths with another major Oscar hopeful, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Four years ago, the Morgan Freeman-starring Invictus, also about Nelson Mandela, made a tepid $37 million in the U.S. off a $60 million budget, with better results overseas. Long Walk, however, is a very different film focusing on Mandela’s earlier years. If it’s perceived as doing significantly better, it will serve as even more confirmation that Hollywood’s decision to address race has paid off.

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