Where Does Lupita Go From Here?

“No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

On Sunday night my Twitter timeline was flooded with positive emotions and well wishing on behalf of Lupita Nyong’o who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Patsey in “12 Years A Slave.” It wasn’t the only award “12 Years” would win on the night however, as the film also won for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Lupita has come a long way in just a few short months. If you had asked anyone just last summer about who Lupita Nyong’o was, most people would probably give you a quizzical response. But then “12 Years A Slave” began premiering — and winning — at various film festivals picking up momentum into its eventual theatrical release in October. The film’s director, Steve McQueen, and star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, weren’t exactly household names prior to “12 Years A Slave,” but they had worked on other projects in the past. “12 Years A Slave” introduced Lupita Nyong’o to world and the Oscars were just the crescendo to her months long coming out party.

Despite all the attention, media profiles, and magazine covers, I truly do wonder what becomes of Lupita from here on out. In what was sort of a subtle reminder of just how fleeting celebrity can be (particularly for black actors in Hollywood) Gabourey Sidibe made a brief appearance at the Oscars when she presented the award for Best Original Song. It was just four years ago that she along with Monique were the talk of the town for their roles in Lee Daniels’ 2009 film “Precious.” It’s safe to say neither of their careers has had the expected trajectory of Oscar nominated actresses.

Perhaps Lupita’s career arc will be different. Unlike Monique and Gabourey, Lupita has a certain “it” factor about her right now that is simply hard to dismiss. Also, Lupita does have a small part in the current Liam Neeson thriller “Non Stop.” Hopefully “12 Years A Slave” is only the beginning to an illustrious career for Lupita Nyong’o and not just a mere footnote in Oscar history.

When A Role Overtakes an Actor

If anyone ever wondered whether certain roles can wear on an actor, they can look no further than this clip featuring actor Michael K. Williams.

In a recent appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show, Williams, who had a small part in the film “12 Years A Slave,” speaks on a particularly emotional scene that was not shown in theaters. In it, Williams describes being dragged on a slave ship, and after reenacting the painful event a few times, how he breaks down screaming and crying. Take a look.

I witnessed a similar event while on a film set a few years ago.

In the Summer of 2011, I was a production assistant on an independent feature film. The basic premise of the film centered on two men, one who was a terrorist, the other a college professor. In one scene, the actor who played the terrorist, kidnaps the professor and is raging mad as he is driving a cab. As we were filming the scene and re-shooting it, the actor playing the terrorist broke down at the end of the scene and began crying. Some of the crew consoled him. It was clear he had been overcome with emotion.

Intense roles like these are not easy to watch — let alone perform. Roles that involve scenes in which anger, brutality, and violence are portrayed, can often be physically and emotionally draining. That’s often when we see some of the the greatest acting performances as well. When I think people hear acting, many often associate it with ‘pretending.’ He’s pretending to be that secret agent. She’s pretending to be that ailing mother. They’re pretending to be small town citizens in a 1950s crime drama. The difference however is that acting is not so much pretending as it is becoming that person or thing while the cameras are rolling.

It’s a subtle difference that can make a good acting job be looked at as Oscar worthy. It’s why actors spend so much time researching a historical figure and spending time with those who knew them; or reading articles about an event and visiting that place where such events happened. As we’ve seen though, it’s not always easy to become someone and assume the emotional baggage that comes with that role.

When the Guy On the Poster Isn’t the Star of the Film

Interesting news out of Italy these last few weeks in reference to the premiere of “12 Years A Slave” and how the film is being marketed. According to a woman who lives in Italy and planned on seeing the film, the “12 Years” poster barely featured lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, but instead prominently displayed white supporting actors Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender. Here’s the photo.

While the act of downplaying black actors/actresses in the marketing of a film is not a new one, it certainly is striking when the main character of said film is black and is barely shown in the poster. It’s even more jarring when the film is about slavery. According to multiple reports, the posters have since been taken down and were not officially supported by the film’s distribution company. Thoughts?

My 2013 Movie of the Year

2013 was quite a year for black film. There were more movies featuring black folks in prominent roles then I can remember in quite sometime. Who knows if that continues going into 2014, but we’ll see. With that said, here are my picks:

Movie of the Year: Fruitvale Station

Excellent job by actor-director duo Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler. I remember when the murder of Oscar Grant took place in January 2009 and it affected me deeply. I felt Coogler and Jordan did a damn good job of depicting Grant not as a saint, but as a human being with triumphs and flaws just like everyone else. Though you know the ending going in, it still tugs at your heart to see it all play out in the film

Runner-up: 12 Years A Slave & Lincoln

“12 Years A Slave” is not an easy movie to watch, but it is certainly one that is worth watching. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar worthy perfromance as Solomon and Lupita Nyong’o deserves consideration as well for her role as Patsey. As for “Lincoln,” Daniel Day-Leiws is just that good. Though “Lincoln” technically came out last year, I wound up seeing it to a packed theater last February.

Good Job, Good Effort: The Butler

Listen, I appreciated “The Butler” and I enjoyed the performances of Forest Whitaker, Oprah, David Oyelowo and even the cameos by David Banner and Mariah Carey. The cinematography was very good and the story wasn’t bad; but I still left “The Butler” feeling somewhat disappointed. Certain scenes seemed completely unrealistic – even for film – such as when David Oyelowo’s character, Louis Gaines, goes from marching with Dr. King one moment to sitting at a home in Oakland lounging with the Black Panthers the next. I left feeling that the movie, while good, could have been more.

The Importance & Significance of 12 Years A Slave

When it comes to the film “12 Years A Slave,” which hit theaters a few weeks ago, my recommendation is to see it while it’s still playing. This article isn’t so much a film review as it is a look at some of the themes at play in “12 Years A Slave” and its larger significance on society beyond the realm of cinema.

I went to see “12 Years A Slave” about a month ago with a lady friend, and at $14 a ticket (Manhattan prices) I was hoping that this film would live up to the all the praise it had been receiving up to its theatrical launch. It certainly did that for me and more as it left me intrigued and analyzing a number of topics upon leaving the theater.

“12 Years A Slave” tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery, and the harrowing 12 years of his existence in America’s ‘Peculiar Institution.’ Through his eyes we see the horrors of slavery up close: a mother having her children sold from her arms, brutal beatings, working on the plantation, and a sense of despair festering throughout the film like rotting meat on a summer afternoon. Though “12 Years A Slave” is the story of Solomon Northup, it really could be the story of any enslaved black person at that time. But because the story is specific to Solomon and based on true events, it simply can not be dismissed as an over-dramatization or the imagination of a director like last year’s “Django Unchained.” “12 Years A Slave” gives an unflinching and very hard look at American slavery and quite frankly, it’s a story that needed to be told.

In the last few months I’ve read articles and heard from more than a few people that they’re tired of black people being portrayed in ‘hardship roles’ in films, such as butlers, slaves or having to march and be beaten while fighting for their civil rights. While I understand the sentiment, I think it’s misplaced. While these certainly shouldn’t be the only roles in which we see blacks play major parts, they are nevertheless important to the education of our nation at large.

Slavery is one topic that I feel by and large the United States school system does a pretty terrible job of educating people about. I remember attending an event for the commemoration of the TV miniseries “Roots,” where one of the cast members remarked that when he was in school slavery was reduced to a paragraph in his history textbook. An institution that affected tens of millions of people and lasted for well over 200 years in this nation, reduced to a paragraph. That’s not history, so much as HIS STORY.

The one thing “12 Years A Slave” does exceptionally well is illuminate this dark period of our nation’s history, even if it is but a small glimpse into a past most would like to forget. At a time when national figures are comparing a health system to slavery and a senator from Nevada suggested he would not be opposed to bringing back slavery if his constituents wanted it (yes, a politician in 2013 really did say this) movies like “12 Years” are vitally important. It has become clear through comments such as the ones above, that there are a good amount of people in this country who truly don’t understand just how terrible slavery really was.

Slavery wasn’t simply not having your freedom. It was knowing that your family members could be sold off. It was knowing that you could be beaten to death and that your life had about as much value as cattle. We see this in “12 Years” when Solomon himself barely survives a lynching only because his owner deems him too valuable to be killed. What is interesting is that more of these stories have not been told on the big screen.

Most people have heard of Harriet Tubman. A good amount have probably heard of Fredrick Douglass as well. But what about Denmark Vesey? Nat Turner? Gabriel Prosser? Phyllis Wheatley? These were all prominent names who either spent their lives as slaves or fought tirelessly against it during their time. I was disappointed when Fredrick Douglass was nowhere to be found in “Lincoln,” but not necessarily surprised.

One aspect that “12 Years” did not leave out, was the treatment of slave women during the era. We see a woman who has her children sold, and the audience is introduced to Patsey who is on the same plantation as Solomon. Patsey is beaten, forced to spend backbreaking hours picking cotton and raped. The sad fact is rape of women during slavery was rather pervasive. I suggest people read Harriet Jacobs’s book, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, which details her struggles with slavery and the repeated sexual advances made by her master. These types of relations weren’t just limited to little known slave owners. While it is well known that Thomas Jefferson was guilty of such a crime himself with his lovechild between Salley Hemmings, less is known about George Washington. As it stands, there is presently a black family in the United States who claim to be direct descendants of America’s Founding Father. According to them, Washington impregnated a teenage slave girl by the name of Venus who was owned by a man who was housing Washington at the time. When questioned as to who was father of the child, the girl pointed out George Washington.

So against this backdrop of torture, oppression, and sadness, there is also a sense of great relief for Solomon as his 12 year nightmare does eventually come to an end. However, there is no such relief for Patsey as the audience is left to watch a heart wrenching scene where it becomes apparent that there will be no cavalry for her. Patsey is a person stuck in circumstances she did not create, and subjected to a fate she doesn’t deserve. I believe in the power of films to educate, entertain and enlighten, and while “12 Years A Slave” is not the type of film to see from an entertainment aspect, it certainly does educate and enlighten and give empathy to those who lived under such harsh conditions for such long periods of time.

 

Best Man Holiday Beats Expectations As A Win for ‘Race Themed’ Films

I found it funny how there were so many people who were “surprised” and “shocked” that the film “The Best Man Holiday” had done so well at the box office last weekend. It’s as if the national media was shocked that so many black people came out to support a film where the main characters looked like them for a change. Then there was the USA Today article on “race-themed movies.”

The article seemed innocuous enough, but the headline “‘Holiday’ nearly beats ‘Thor’ as race themed films soar,” left me shaking my head. “Best Man Holiday” made over $30 million in its opening weekend, just behind “Thor” at $34 million, but where USA Today is wrong is labeling “Best Man Holiday” a race-themed film. Just because it’s a film that features a predominately black cast doesn’t make it anymore about race than the gluttony of films made up of all white casts that are never viewed as being about race.

What this also reveals is that when it comes to identifying with characters, white audiences are not asked to identify with black characters the same way in which black audiences are asked to relate to white characters. This is mainly due to the fact in my opinion that there are far more films with white leads or predominately white casts (with blacks playing ancillary roles) that it seems almost normal as to be expected in most films. When it comes to films featuring mainly black folks, these films are looked at as out of the norm not only because of the racial breakdown of the cast, but because there are so few of them. As a white individual you can look past these films and know that 90% of major Hollywood productions will feature casts that most resemble you. As a person of color, you simply do not have that option.

So when somebody points out “Best Man Holiday” as being ‘race-themed’ and compares it to films such as “Fruitvale Station,” “The Butler,” and “12 Years A Slave,”  films where race does play a central role, it shows a lack of understanding. It’s as if to say because all these films feature back people prominently, they must all be saying the same thing. That’s like someone comparing “That 70’s Show” and “Sex and the City” to each other because they both feature overwhelmingly white casts.

In the midst of all this last week, I thought about this billboard announcing NBC’s 2013 Fall Comedy lineup. Notice anything?

I don’t recall any national headlines about NBC’s ‘race-themed’ comedy lineup. Just saying.