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.
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.
Writer and director Ryan Coogler, who directed the critically acclaimed “Fruitvale Station,” speaks on the impact that attending the Sundance Film Insititute Labs had not only on his career, but his life.
After a month delay and several months of being intrigued by the premise of the film, I finally saw “Fruitvale Station” last week. It left me feeling a number of emotions upon exiting the theater.
“Fruitvale Station” is the story of Oscar Grant and the 24 hours leading up to his death at the Fruitvale subway stop in Oakland, California, on New Year’s Day 2009. But it’s really so much more than that. It’s a story that truly does explore the human condition through Oscar’s eyes and makes the viewer see a troubled man who was trying to turn his life around.
What makes “Fruitvale Station” different than most movies is that you have some idea going in how the story will end. Anyone who has heard about the film or done any research on the case, knows ultimately that Oscar Grant will be killed. Similar much in the same way as a movie like “Titanic,” where (spoiler alert) the ship sinks, with a film like “Fruitvale Station” character development becomes all the more crucial when the audience knows the final result.
Michael B. Jordan gives an excellent performance as Oscar Grant. Through him, we see more of a 360 degree portrayal of Grant. By that I mean director Ryan Coogler is careful not to paint Grant as some figure headed for sainthood before death. Too often in dramas about people’s lives, we see heavy handed attempts to portray the protagonist in the most positive light possible with little to no faults. In essence the main character becomes reduced to little more than a cardboard cutout of virtue, instead of a fleshed out human being with emotional, physical, mental, or spiritual obstacles to conquer. This is exactly the criticism I leveled at the film “42”; I was glad to see “Fruitvale Station” didn’t follow that same script.
Over the course of the film we see Oscar not take his prospects of getting a job seriously. We see a man at times quick to anger, but even quicker to flash his smile at someone. We see a person learning to accept the responsibility of fatherhood while trying to become a more supportive partner to his girlfriend. We also witness the interactions he has with his mother (great job by Octavia Spencer) and the initial guilt she feels immediately after his death.
“Fruitvale Station” on its surface is a movie about a shooting, but really it’s a movie about the relationships between Oscar Grant and those around him. Through his friends and family we see him as a person bending in the direction of slowly, but steadily, improving his life. I would strongly recommend anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, to make an effort to watch it while it’s still in theaters. It may leave you teary eyed at points, but chances are, you’ll be better for the experience.