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Why 12 Years a Slave Winning Best Picture Was A Game Changer For Hollywood

Why 12 Years a Slave Winning Best Picture Was A Game Changer For Hollywood

Picture of Rajesh Punj
Updated: 4 January 2017
Hollywood is only recently starting to recognise the contributions of black actors, actresses, directors and screenwriters. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was a game changer at the 86th Academy Awards, as it won an Oscar for Best Picture, making it the first black-directed film to do so. Rajesh Punj explores the troubled history of black films and directors at the Academy Awards and Emmys.

Film and television have always generated the greatest media interest outside of politics, and in America where the cult of celebrity is the proven incarnation of Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame, such cultural corollaries reach a point of crescendo with the annual television Emmy awards and the star-studded Hollywood film Oscars. On Sunday 2 February 2014, the Academy Awards jury gave black director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave an Oscar for Best Picture – this historical win marked the first time that a black-directed film received the highest honour in Hollywood’s film awards industry.

Like no other creative industries in the modern world, television and film are capable of generating unprecedented profit for their production companies; whilst successfully capturing vast swathes of the population’s attention, day on day, week on week, year on year. What is available to us cinematically and via our home television stations has become a substantial part of our collective social experiences. And as a reflection of the political and social trends, television and film have very definitely attempted to nourish and shape our imaginations with the motives and prevailing ideas of the day. If culture reflects society, and entertainment media reflects our culture, then America seems to have embraced the idea of cultural diversity; for many years now, non-white protagonists have successfully taken up the helm of modern television and film as producers and directors, but have failed to be sufficiently rewarded for their endeavours.

Now in their 86th year, the Academy Awards finally selected a black film for the Best Picture category. Modern entertainment history has come to recognise and reward the talents of African-American actors and actresses; Denzel Washington as Alonso Harris in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (2001), Halle Berry as Leticia Musgrove in Marc Forster’s 2001 film Monster’s Ball, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles Robinson in Taylor Hackford’s 2004 film Ray, Don Cheadle as hotelier Paul Rusesabagina in Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004), Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls (2006), Morgan Freeman as Eddie Dupris in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004), Forest Whitaker as General Idi Amin in Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland (2006), and Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson in Tate Taylor’s The Help (2011), have all given outstanding performances that have challenged the status quo. Yet given their prominence on stage and screen, their counterparts on the other side of the camera; African American film producers and directors, are less recognised and have gone unrewarded for their efforts despite Steve McQueen’s nomination for Best Director (2014).

Historically the late Sidney Poitier was first nominated for an Oscar for his role as Noah Cullen in Stanley Kramer’s 1958 black and white film, The Defiant Ones, playing opposite Tony Curtis, before taking the prize for his leading role in Lilies of the Field, (1963), as Homer Smith in Ralph Nelson’s adaptation of William Edmund Barrett novel of the same name. James Earl Jones, Paul Winfield, Dexter Gordon were all nominated thereafter, leading to Morgan Freeman being nominated for his role in the 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy, Denzel Washington for his lead role as Malcom X in 1992 and Morgan Freeman’s lead role as Ellis Redding in The Shawshank Redemption in 1994. But since Poitier’s role in The Defiant Ones in 1958, it wasn’t until Denzel Washington was nominated for his role as Alonzo Harris in 2001’s Training Day, was an African American recognised for significance contributions to film. Supporting Oscars have gone to Louis Gossett Jr. for his role as Sergeant Emil Foley in Taylor Hackford’s 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman. Denzel Washington as Private Trip in Edward Zwick’s 1989 film Glory. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Rod Tidwell in Cameron Crowe’s 1996 film Jerry Maguire, and Morgan Freeman for his role as Eddie Dupris in Clint Eastwood’s 2004 film Million Dollar Baby.

In terms of female leads, Dorothy Dandridge was nominated in 1954 for her lead role as Carmen Jones, Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Sidney J. Furie’s 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, in the same year Cicely Turner was nominated for her role as Rebecca Morgan in Martin Ritt’s Sounder. Diahann Carroll as Claudine in John Berry’s 1974 film of the same name, Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Johnson in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film The Color Purple, and in 1993 Angela Bassett was nominated for her lead role in Brian Gibson’s What’s Love Got to Do With it.

But it wasn’t until Halle Berry was nominated for her lead role as Leticia Musgrove in Marc Forster’s 2001 film Monster’s Ball, that an African American woman was recognised for her acting prowess. For Berry the reward marked a watershed moment in the history of African American contributions to film. According to Berry, “this moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me — Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox…and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”

 Thereafter Gabourey Sidibe has been nominated for her lead role as Claireece Jones in Lee Daniels 2009 film Precious. Daniels was nominated for the Best Picture and Best Director categories in the same year. Viola Davis was nominated for her role as Aibileen Clark, in Tate Taylor’s 2011 adaptation of the novel by Kathryn Stockett of the same name, and most recently nine year old Quvenzhané Wallis’ was nominated for her role as Hushpuppy in Benh Zeitlin’s fantasy film drama Beasts of the Southern Wild. Zeitlin was also nominated in the ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’ categories.

Supporting Oscars have gone to Hattie McDaniel for her role as Mammy in Victor Fleming’s 1939 film Gone with the Wind, the first African American actor to be nominated and win an Oscar in the inaugural year of the academy awards. A year after American Theodore Ward’s play Big White Fog had gone on general release. Set in Chicago during the Great Depression of the 1920s, it follows a poor African American family as they struggle to partake in the American dream.

It wasn’t until 1990 with Whoopi Goldberg’s supporting role as Oda Mae Brown in Jerry Zucker’s film Ghost that an African American returned to the podium. Thereafter in 2006 Jennifer Hudson was the first and youngest African American woman to receive an Oscar for a debut performance. And most recently Mo’Nique received the award for her role as Mary Lee Johnston in Lee Daniels’ 2009 film Precious, and Octavia Spencer was given an Oscar for her supporting role as Minny Jackson in Tate Taylor’s 2011 film The Help.

From behind the camera, the Oscars have been few and far between; T. J. Martin received an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, for 2012’s Undefeated, and Roger Williams took the Oscar in the Best Documentary Short, for 2009’s Music by Prudence. Songs and film scores aside, awards have come for best writing of adapted screenplays and nominations for original screenplays, to Geoffrey Fletcher for his adaptation of Push by Sapphire, for the 2009 film Precious, and Spike Lee for the 1989 film Do the Right Thing, and John Singleton’s 1991 Boyz n the Hood, respectively. Singleton was also nominated in the Best Director category in the same year. And more recently the Best Director nomination has gone to Lee Daniels for his 2009 film Precious. Significantly the Best Picture category has had as few as five nominations in all 85 years of the Academy Awards; Quincy Jones was the first black producer to be nominated for The Color Purple (1985), and then it was not until 2009 with Lee Daniels’ Precious that a black director has ever been nominated for the category. In the same year Broderick Johnson’s nomination for The Blind Side, meant two African American were short-listed in the same year; unprecedented in the history of the Academy Awards. As recently as last year Reginald Hudlin was nominated for Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino and produced by Hudlin. In 2014, it was Steve McQueen’s turn with his slavery film 12 Years a Slave, which won Best Picture but narrowly missed Best Director.

Five nominations in 86 years is a damning statistic, and warrants wider questions about the number of recognised films that have gone unnoticed and un-nominated, that were directed and produced by African Americans since the inaugural awards ceremony in 1939; and possibly even of how much of an opportunity there has been historically for African Americans to take the lead and steer a screenplay into cinematic format. The Oscars prove to be the tip of the iceberg of the entertainment industries, and statics and nominations aside.

Possibly directors like Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen, producers Broderick Johnson and Reginald Hulin, actors Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker and Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry are bucking the trend, with several nominations in the last ten years, and new and forth coming releases including Red Tails, directed by Anthony Hemingway, and produced by George Lucas, that has Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrance Howard as its leads.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which he produces and directs, has an all-star Black American cast, including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrance Howard, Yaya DaCosta, Colman Domingo and Aml Ameen. 12 Years a Slave, is another film by acclaimed artist and director Steve McQueen, produced by Brad Pitt and Dede Gardener, that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Quvenzhané Wallis and Lupita Nyong’o as lead actors. 2013’s film Black Nativity, directed by Kasi Lemmons, with Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jennifer Hudson and Mary j. Blige, is likely to attract critical attention; and then more romantic comedy, David E. Talbert’s 2013 Baggage Claim, which stars Paula Patton, Djimon Hounsou, Boris Kodjoe, Christina Milian, Terrance J. and Jenifer Lewis. And significantly at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Ava DuVernay won best director for Middle of Nowhere, starring Emayatzy Corinealdi, David Oyelowo, and Lorraine Toussaint, and Ryan Coogler’s first feature film, Fruitvale Station, won the Grand Jury Prize; and as a flourishing creative zeitgeist is likely to warrant a Black Oscar for a new genre of uninhibited screenwriters, producers, directors, and actors.

In their 65th year the television equivalent of the academy awards, the Emmys are awarded to the possible Oscar nominees of the future. Cutting their teeth into television has given actors a certain level of maturing notoriety that have warranted lesser film parts. Louis Gossett Jr. was nominated for his role in the television series Palmerstown U.S.A, (1981), before making his film debut in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman, for which he received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Diahann Carroll was nominated for her television role in 1963’s Naked City, leading to her lead role in John Berry’s 1974’s film Claudine and Halle Berry won an Emmy for her role in 2000’s Introducing Dorothy Dandbridge, and further nominated for her performance in 2005’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. And this feeding ground for emerging Black American talent has rewarded the creative industries with a new genre of actors and lead characters for years to come. British actors making significant headway in the US include David Harewood, playing Martin Luther King in the highly regarded play The Mountain Top, (2009), written by the American playwright Katori Hall and directed by James Dacre, and more recently in 2011 starring as David Estes, Director of the CIA’s counter terrorism center, in the US Showtime series Homeland. Another British actor, Idris Elba conquered America before returning to the UK, after a supporting role in a 2001 episode of Law & Order, Elba landed a leading role in the 2002 HBO series The Wire, as drug lord and businessman Russell Bell. Elba returned to the UK for the title role as Detective John Luther in the BBC One series Luther. His film parts have included a supporting role in Ridley Scott’s 2007 American Gangster, The Losers, (2010), directed by Sylvain White, produced by Joel Silver, 2012 Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott and produced by David Giler and most recently playing Stacker Pentecost, in the US science fiction film Pacific Rim, directed by Guillermo del Toro.

If cinema and television have always appeared whiter than white, then as a new generation of black protagonists and practitioners are taking to the stage, appearing on television and in film in numbers, then everyone has a greater stake in the future of the creative industries, and rightly so. Now it really requires an audacious act on the part of the Academy Awards and even the television Emmys, over the coming years or, perhaps, symbolically in 2028 to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Oscars, to honour all those African American actors who have historically contributed so much to stage and screen.