This is the first article in a series about diversity in filmmaking. For the second article, Top 5 Upcoming Female-Directed Movies, please click here.
Note: This article was amended on 1/24/15. A sixth movie was added.
By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is making some big changes to address the diversity problem (you know, the one where there is no diversity—that one) in the voting process for the Oscars. A lot of people have been weighing in on this one, from Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine, who have argued that race shouldn’t play a factor in Oscar voting, to Spike Lee, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, who are so outraged that they’re boycotting the ceremony this year.
So who’s right? Is it the Academy’s fault? Is it Hollywood’s fault for not giving actors and directors of color, not to mention women, enough opportunities to make the movies in the first place?
Personally, I think the problem probably lies in both ends of the spectrum. Clearly, if there’s only a handful of actors and directors in the conversation come Oscar time, and dozens and dozens of white people in the conversation, then, to kinda-quote The Hunger Games, “the odds are not in their favor.”
Personally, I’m glad the Academy is making these changes, but I’d like to see more opportunities given on the front end, too.
On that token, focusing on the positive for a moment, here are the top five movies featuring and/or made by African-American artists this year that I’m most looking forward to. This will be the beginning of a series, and I’ll make a similar list for women and other minorities. But for now, let’s get excited about some of these, shall we?
- Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. Borrowing the title of the famously divisive (read: racist) DW Griffith movie from 1915, Mr. Parker (Beyond the Lights) wrote, produced, and directed this movie in which he plays infamous slave rebellion leader Nat Turner. The movie premiered to raves at Sundance this past week.
Mr. Parker tell The Hollywood Reporter, “Growing up as a black man in the South, there was such a shortage of heroism in respect to the history that I was taught.” This inspired him to write the script, raise the $10 million to make it using crowd funding, and spend two years devoting his whole life to his passion project. And it looks gorgeous. Can’t wait to see this one.
2. The Magnificent Seven. Director Antoine Fuqua reunites with his Training Day star Denzel Washington, who leads the cast in this remake of John Sturges’ 1960 masterpiece about seven gunfighters defending a Mexican town.
So let’s see, Antoine Fuqua, check. Denzel Washington, check. Classic story, great cast (which also includes Chris Pratt, Matt Bomer and Ethan Hawke.) Um, okay, I’m in.
- Free State of Jones. Opening in May, this movie stars Matthew McConaughey as a white Southerner and abolitionist during the Civil War who deserts the Confederate Army and instead starts his own “state” where whites and blacks are considered equal.
Yes, I know, the white man comes to save all the black people. I get it. It could be Dangerous Minds meets the antebellum South, which would suck (although if we could get Stevie Wonder and Coolio to reunite for a sequel to their song Gangsta’s Paradise, I’d buy a ticket right now.) But with his wife being played by one of my new favorite actresses, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Concussion), this movie might be coming at the perfect time for a much needed discussion about race relations in the South. Because, you know, a good movie is totally going to solve that problem.
- A United Kingdom, from director Amma Asante (writer of Belle.) The true story of Prince Seretse Khama, the first prince of Botswana (played by Selma’s David Oyelowo), who caused a commotion when he married a white English clerk named Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike).
I am so excited for this one. According to the Wikipedia page on Khama, the interracial marriage (which South Africa, their next-door-neighbor, had made illegal under Apartheid) led to a series of legal and political ramifications, ending with Mr. and Mrs. Khama being temporarily exiled from their own country in 1951. You can read more about this incredible story here.
- Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead. Opening in April, Cheadle directed and stars in this biopic about jazz legend Miles Davis. The Hollywood Reporter says, “Cheadle’s tribute to the artist is energized at every step by a fitting improvisational spirit, echoed onscreen in Davis’ performances.”
The music alone should make this one worth the price of admission.
6. I know, I know. I said “top five,” and this is six. But there was one more I forgot to mention and I can’t let it lie because I’m too excited about it. Besides, who doesn’t love a little lagniappe, as my New Orleans friends would say, from time to time? What is this movie?
Stephan James (Selma) stars as track legend Jesse Owens, who literally raced against the Nazis in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, pissing off Hitler by being better than them. One of our great American athletes, and about time his story was told.
So what do you think? What did I leave out? What are you excited to see? Let me know in the comments section!
Follow Rebecca Phelps on Twitter at #DownWorldNovel