‘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.

READ MORE: The Oscars selfie that 'broke' Twitter
Liza Minnelli in 'obscene' red carpet wardrobe malfunction
Benedict Cumberbatch photobombs U2
Best supporting actress Lupita Nyong'o hailed fashion queen
12 Years a Slave named Best Picture as Gravity bags 7 awards
Another Oscars, another fall from Jennifer Lawrence

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.”

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor