Oscars: ‘Fruitvale Station’ Kicks Off Strongest Group Of African-American Contenders In Years

Source: Pete Hammond / Deadline.com

more diversity to its membership. Now will that effort affect the actual Oscar race itself? Certainly this year distributors, particularly The Weinstein Company and Fox Searchlight, are going to be giving the Academy every opportunity to put some diversity into that race, especially in terms of a major African- American presence. Beginning with this Friday’s platformed Weinstein release of the widely acclaimed Sundance and Cannes award winner, Fruitvale Station there is a highly promising lineup of films that seriously depict the Black experience to be released in the second half of 2013. And I am not talking about Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas.

This group of movies, which also includes the increasingly-controversial The Butler (8/16- Weinstein), 12 Years A Slav(10/18- Searchlight), Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom (11/29 – Weinstein), Black Nativity (11/27 – Searchlight),Blue Caprice starring Isaiah Washington (IFC – 9/13), the recently -released documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom (Radius-TWC) and (far less likely) even the long-delayed Winnie Mandela  (Image Entertainment) starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard now being released in  September,  provide a bountiful opportunity to let the Academy show off its new spirit of diversity, not that they have been completely dormant in that area in recent years. Of course 2012′s Beasts Of The Southern Wild made the most recent Best Picture cut and won its 9 year old star Quvenzhane Wallis a Best Actress nomination. And  Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar winning Original Screenplay for another 2012 Best Pic nominee, Django Unchained  had a unique take on slavery. Two years ago the box office success of The Help  propelled it towards a Best Picture nomination and acting nods for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the latter winning for Best Supporting Actress.  And just four years ago Precious won a couple of key Oscars for Supporting Actress Monique and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher as well as Best Picture and Directing (for Lee Daniels) nominations.

But there’s something in the air this year, a year that could well produce serious potential African American Best Actor nominees in Idris Elba (Mandela), Chewitel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave), Forest Whitaker (The Butler) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale), and let’s not forget the fine work earlier this year of Chadwick Boseman who played Jackie Robinson in 42. There are also strong women’s roles in these films so don’t discountMandela’s Naomie Harris, Oprah Winfrey’s screen return in The Butler, and Octavia Spencer’s brief, but powerful work in Fruitvale. Since the majority of these films are yet to be screened this list may just be partial. Significantly several of these contenders are actually directed by African-Americans, which of course was not always the case before.

Certainly timing is conspiring to help the box office chances of this crop. Nelson Mandela’s headline-makng health problems could just add to interest in the pair of projects relating to his life due for release. Image Entertainment, which announced its acquisition of U.S. rights for Winnie Mandela recently in Cannes, sensed this and is now finally putting that film into theaters on September 6th after seeing it wane on the shelf since a less-than-auspicious debut (then known as Winnie) at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival. Critics weren’t kind. It was re-cut and did play briefly in Canada last year under the original title. Undoubtedly Image wants to beat the more highly anticipated Weinstein film Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom into theatres.

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