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01 Dec 2015 11:19
US film director Spike Lee. (AFP)
This time last year, the curtain was raised on the whitest awards season in recent memory. This was despite the presence of a black
woman as the president of the Academy, and a well-reviewed biopic of Martin
Luther King from an African-American director. So overwhelmingly Caucasian
were the bulk of the nominees that #OscarsSoWhite started trending on Twitter.
Spike Lee recently commented that it is easier to become a
black president of the US than a black studio head, correctly assessing a
business still defined by decisions made by white people.
“The industry at
large remains painfully homogeneous in its ethnicity and social
background,” says Screen International’s Andreas Wiseman.
film and TV audiences continue to diversify.
While recent years have seen Netflix documentaries such as
Virunga and The Square score Oscar nominations, this looks set to be the first
year where two fiction films made by streaming platforms may figure in the race
for the key categories. Yet more striking is that both these contenders are
films with predominantly black casts dealing with issues that Hollywood often
In October, Netflix unveiled Beasts of No Nation, an uncompromising
drama starring Idris Elba as a fearsome warlord in charge of an army of child
soldiers in an unnamed African country. It’s a film that steers clear of cliche – and the need to filter the atrocities through a white viewpoint.
But its troubled route to the small screen (before being
picked up by Netflix, the film’s budget came from a†bond company) was
“without a doubt” down to the colour of the cast, according to the
director, Cary Fukunaga.
“The studios are in the business of making money,
so if the numbers show that X subject delivers Y amount of money, then they are
going to finance those projects,” he said to the Guardian earlier this
year . “As long as the films are about this white person’s issue and that
white person’s issue, they’re going to continue to make those films.”
A scene from Chi-Raq.
Next month sees the release of Amazon Studios’ Chi-Raq, a
blistering comeback for director Spike Lee that takes a satirical yet impassioned
look at escalating gun crime in the US (the title hat-tips slang referencing
the similarity between murder rates in Chicago and Iraq). The script’s urgency
and topicality - during the five weeks of production, 65 people were shot and
killed in the city – has led to controversy, with the families of victims and
the mayor of Chicago expressing concern over Lee’s intentions.
hit back, saying that it was the crime itself that was giving the city a bad
name, not his movie.) But as the first post-Ferguson film to deal with issues
of racism, poverty and weaponry in contemporary America, it’s an undeniably
vital addition to a season dominated by films possessed by the past .
Lee has remained outspoken throughout his career, on topics
from the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina to racism within the
entertainment industry, but has recently struggled to secure an audience – and
a budget – for his films. His “black vampire” film, Da Sweet Blood of
Jesus, was funded through Kickstarter, while the Brooklyn-based drama Red Hook
Summer failed to take even $500 000. Despite the timeliness of Chi-Raq and the
starry cast (Samuel L Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson), the road to
production wasn’t easy – until the new outfit stepped in.
“We tried to get the script made several years ago, and
Spike and I met with all the major studios and they just didn’t get it,”
says co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott. “Spike met with Amazon at Sundance
and then we had a reading of the script for them and they were in. It was
Amazon’s $15m (£9.9m) outlay for Chi-Raq represents a
substantial investment in a film that focuses on a minority narrative from a
director who isn’t exactly a safe commercial bet. Like Beasts, Chi-Raq will
have a limited theatrical release before being available to watch online.
“There are economic reasons behind those decisions,” says Wiseman.
“Studies have shown that the growing proportion of ethnic minorities in
the US and UK are over-represented among buyers of cinema tickets and in
digital film consumption.”
On TV, Amazon and Netflix have also offset a disappointing
landscape for LGBT characters with groundbreaking shows such as Transparent and
Orange Is the New Black. The companies are young and willing to take risks,
with Netflix recently plunging $50m into an unconventional monster movie
directed by Korean director Bong Joon-ho and starring Tilda Swinton and Jake
But it remains to be seen whether the Academy will respond
positively to Beasts and Chi-Raq. The two major films with black characters
that have excelled with the Academy in recent years have been The Help and 12
Years a Slave, which saw wins for Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong’o – but
playing a maid and a slave, respectively. Last year’s Selma snub was seen as a
clear sign that black agency is still feared by the voters.
A scene from Selma.
Oyelowo’s performance deserved at least a mention,” film-maker John
Akomfrah told the Guardian earlier this year . “He didn’t get it because
he was playing a black character who was in control or was attempting to be in
control, and that much is indisputable.”
In March, Selma‘s director, Ava DuVernay, concurred.
“The studios aren’t lining up to make films about black
protagonists,” she said . “Black people being autonomous and
This year has seen the NWA biopic, Straight Outta Compton,
become a surprise success, making $200m worldwide, while the diversely cast
Fast & Furious 7 broke records with $1.5bn. A UCLA study from March showed
that it’s not audiences who are the problem, but rather “an industry
culture that routinely devalues the talent of minorities and women”.
Beasts and Chi-Raq are both passionate polemics about black
characters dealing with seemingly insurmountable odds without help from kindly
white folk. They also have unconventional release strategies, which might put
off the more traditional voters. It’s quite possible that #OscarsSoWhite will
be trending again very soon.
“I’m hopeful that might not be accurate, but
if it is, it’s not a big surprise,” says Willmott. “You can’t be
nominated if they don’t make those films. The surprise is when there are
several African-American nominees.” – (c) Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015
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