Hollywood still has a blind spot when it comes to race

Black film-makers have enjoyed a bumper year but the industry has a bias against African-Americans, says Kaleem Aftab

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The Independent Culture

The unfurling of the line-ups for the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals signal that awards season is upon us. In among the usual mutterings about this finally being George Clooney's year and Meryl Streep being destined to pick up yet another nomination, there are several stories revolving around black stars and directors being touted for Oscars.

First out of the blocks is Lee Daniels' The Butler (the Weinstein Company was forced into adding the director's name to the official title when Warner Bros claimed ownership over The Butler). The 53-year old director has Oscar form – Daniels directed Precious, which received six nominations in 2010, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Mo'Nique. The Philadelphia-born director also produced Monster's Ball, which won Halle Berry a Best Actress Oscar.

Releasing this month in the US, the film stars Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as White House butler Cecil Gaines, who served eight presidents from 1952 to 1986. Whitaker also has a role in the adaptation of the Langston Hughes musical Black Nativity. Musicals often find favour with Academy voters and this Christmas tale also stars Oscar-nominated Angela Bassett, Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson and Mary J Blige. What weighs against Kasi Lemmons's film about a Baltimore teen sent to spend Christmas with his New York-based grandparents is that recent black musicals such as Dreamgirls have failed to capture the imagination and the director's uneven track record.

In addition, Whitaker is also a producer on Fruitvale Station, a film about the death of Oscar Grant, killed by a policeman on New Year's Eve in 2009. The film won plaudits at Sundance and Cannes and both director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B Jordan are being fêted as the next big thing in Hollywood.

The British are also getting in on the act. The most likely British face to be in the running for a Best Actor gong is Chiwetel Ejiofor. The Dirty Pretty Things star is playing slave Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's adaptation of Northup's autobiographical text 12 Years a Slave. 12 Years a Slave is McQueen's most mainstream work – Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender also star – and the black British director could also be stepping up to the Oscar plate.

Ejiofor is also in Biyi Bandele's adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun, about the struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria. Both Ejiofor films will world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

Another British actor being tipped for an Oscar is Luther star Idris Elba, who plays Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. It's directed by Britain's Justin Chadwick, and long gone are the days when black film-makers would complain about white directors telling their stories. Positive discrimination is no longer needed as more black film-makers have emerged.

The New York Times went so far as to call 2013 "a breakout year for black films". In addition to the awards-bait, Spike Lee is helming a big-budget remake of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy starring Josh Brolin and Samuel L Jackson. Tyler Perry has a new film out and there is a sequel to 1999's Best Man.

It's easy to see why there is talk of a renaissance. After all, last year the only film from a Hollywood studio made by a black director with a black cast was Sparkle. There was also a low-key independent release from Spike Lee, Red Hook Summer, which premiered at Sundance with Spike Lee grabbing headlines for rallying against Hollywood.

But calling 2013 a breakout year ignores black American film history, which has had several so-called breakthroughs – Oscar Micheaux – the first black American director – in the 1920s and Thirties, the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s or the start of the black American independent scene with Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It in 1986. Then there were the gangster films that followed John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood or comedies such as House Party.

Such analysis also fails to recognise the success that black film-makers have had in recent years. It's worth noting the numbers of actors named above who have Academy Award nominations and wins.

The proclamation of a renaissance is problematic because it sweeps under the carpet what are still major problems for black film-makers and actors, especially those operating in the US: the studios are still not very interested in producing black films; studios still rarely put black actors in lead roles; the list of Oscar contenders is full of prestige pictures financed outside of the Hollywood system and on low budgets.

The result is that Hollywood is increasingly out of touch. As for the future, Spike Lee may be about to see the release of Oldboy, but as he saw from the success of Inside Man, a studio success doesn't mean that you will get funds to make any movie you want. He recently started a crowdsourcing campaign on Kickstarter to finance his next film claiming Hollywood doesn't make the films he wants to make.