‘Obama factor’ could be the reason for Hollywood’s new-found equality gene

Oscar-winner ‘12 Years A Slave’ reflects an industry’s more egalitarian approach to film-making

In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black American to win an Oscar, for her performance as Mammy, the kindly house slave of Gone With The Wind, where slavery is seen from the point of view of white slave owners.

Almost 75 years later, British filmmaker Steve McQueen has become the first black director to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man sold into slavery; it is a rare cinematic depiction of slavery from its victims’ points of view.

Speaking after his win on Sunday, McQueen said of that change in perspective since 1940, “It’s a mark of development. The background characters are now in the foreground and their history and their lives and how they lived are being recognised more than it had ever been before.” He added: “I think people now want to look at that history; want to embrace it; want to accept it in order to… move forward.”

This has been a watershed year for movies that deal with the African-American experience. Also among the critically acclaimed and commercially successful crop of awards contenders were The Butler, a saga of the civil rights movement; 42, a biopic of baseball star Jackie Robinson, who broke the colour barrier in American sports; and Fruitvale Station, a compelling true story of a young black man living and dying in the contemporary US.

 

Some filmmakers, including McQueen, have cited this trend as evidence of the “Obama Effect” on Hollywood: that the US now has a black President means studios and their audiences are more prepared to embrace narratives and characters regardless of their race.

Gil Robertson, the president of the African American Film Critics Association, said, “Obama being President speaks to a shift in attitude held by most Americans and that mind set trickles down to how we consume entertainment. The top question in a person’s mind when going to a film now isn’t whether the character is black or white. As human beings, we all have a story and cinema provides a platform for greater understanding… Hopefully the fact that a film like 12 Years A Slave has been endorsed by the Academy will lead people to finally address and examine that part of our history and move beyond it.”

More than 200 accounts of slavery by former slaves were published before and after its abolition in 1865, but Northup’s is the only surviving memoir by a free man who was kidnapped, enslaved and escaped. A sensation upon its publication in 1853, the book made Northup the best-selling author in the US. He played himself in a popular stage version and travelled widely to campaign against slavery.

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Yet nothing is known about Northup’s later life and death and somehow his book fell out of wide circulation until it was shown to McQueen by his partner, the cultural critic Bianca Stigter. Now, McQueen’s film is to be shown in every state-run school in the United States, and copies of Northup’s book will be given to every student.

Speaking to reporters backstage on Sunday, 12 Years producer Dede Gardner was asked why the film was especially significant in 2014.

“I actually don’t think it’s especially important now,” Gardner said. “I think it was important when it happened and I think it was important for every year between now and then. And I know everyone shares our feeling of great sadness – for the years that the book fell out of print – and incredible joy that it’s back on the shelves and now going to be in the libraries of every high school in America.”

In a recent interview with the International Business Times, actor Samuel L Jackson suggested that in fact it was Fruitvale Station, not 12 Years, that spoke most urgently to the African-American experience today. Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut stars Michael B Jordan as 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot dead by transit police in Oakland, California on New Year’s Day, 2009.

“It explains things like the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the problems with stop and search and is just more poignant,” Jackson said. “America is much more willing to acknowledge what happened in the past: ‘We freed the slaves! It’s all good!’ But to say: ‘We are still unnecessarily killing black men’ – let’s have a conversation about that.”

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