Will we be reading and debating another batch of “Hollywood Whiteout” articles this time next year, lamenting the lack of African American Oscar nominees? Looking at the list of films that have been released (and are still to be released) in theaters this year, the answer to that question probably won’t be pleasant.
Why? Well, because there just aren’t many noteworthy performances on the horizon by blacks in film, both in front of and behind the camera this year.
The Usual Suspects
The usual suspects (or past winners) are mostly absent from the big screen this year, just like last year, or aren’t working on any Oscar-worthy projects. For example, Denzel Washington will appear in one film – an action/thriller called Safe House, co-starring Ryan Reynolds (it seems as if Hollywood is starting to use him as a groomer of sorts for next-gen white male stars – or up-and-coming stars, like Chris Pine in Unstoppable, and now Ryan Reynolds in Safe House); Halle Berry will star in the shark thriller, Dark Tide; Forest Whitaker will be co-starring in a crime drama with Bruce Willis called Catch .44, though it doesn’t look like his part will be all that significant; Jamie Foxx hasn’t exactly done a lot since Ray, and his highest profile role in 2011 will be a peripheral role in a comedy titled Horrible Bosses. His characters name will be M*thaf*cker Jones, so that should tell you something about the part; Jennifer Hudson’s Winnie might be out this year, but, based on the poorly-received trailer we all saw a few months back, I’m not expecting much from the film; Will Smith won’t be starring in any films this year (he’s busy shepherding his childrens’ careers – and Justin Beiber’s as well apparently; he’s next scheduled to appear in Men In Black 3, which won’t be in theaters until 2012); Morgan Freeman, who’s usually good for two or three roles per year, will also be mostly absent from theater screens this year. The Rob Reiner dramedy, The Third Act, that he’s been attached to star in alongside Annette Bening, is scheduled to shoot this year, but I don’t know if it’ll be out in 2011; Spike Lee also won’t have any joints in theaters this year; unless one of the several he’s attached to suddenly gets the funding it needs; the same goes for Lee Daniels, who has been stacking up projects since Precious’ big Oscar wins last year.
I could go on, but I’ll switch gears and instead highlight some performances/projects that could be in Oscar’s sights next year – emphasis on “could be.”
I think our strongest contender for Oscar 2012 is probably Viola Davis in The Help. Yes, she plays a maid in Civil Rights era America. It’s a starring role; a plump role (I’ve read the book), and, unless the film is an unexpected disaster, I expect she’ll be in the mix during awards season.
Octavia Spencer as well, who also co-stars in the film. I’m not privy to her previous work, but again, the role she plays in the film is one of those that I can see attracting acclaim, if played well. Viola Davis’ nod will come in the Best Actress category, even though she’s technically not the star of the film, but based on the book, gets lots of screen time, right along with the star character, played by Emma Stone; and Octavia Spencer in the Best Supporting Actress category. Or both of them in the Best Supporting Actress category. But, at the very least, I expect Viola Davis to be sitting in the front row at the Kodak Theater next year.I really don’t know what to expect from Taraji P. Henson’s upcoming sports drama, From The Rough. It could be a made-for-TV ABC Sunday night movie, or an inspiring, gritty work the likes of The Fighter, or even other award-winning sports-related dramas like Million Dollar Baby and The Blindside. It’s based on a real-life story, which Oscar seems to like, and runs on that Academy favorite overcoming-obstacles-to-achieve-greatness theme. And Taraji is no stranger to Oscar, being nominated for her role in Benjamin Button a few years back. But we’ll see…
Those 3 names (Davis, Spencer and Henson), are the few whom I think have the best chance at getting award looks; But really, just the first two.
The Potential Contenders
Now, there are a number of potential contender films that may or may not be released in 2011, depending on mostly the availability of funding for a lot of them.
They are: as I already said above, if any of the myriad of projects that Lee Daniels or Spike Lee are attached to direct come together soon, either of them could be in the mix; Julien Temple’s Marvin Gaye project, which was set to go into production this year, but has faced some hurdles. But I’d say the film, and whomever plays Marvin Gaye, could be contenders for Oscar 2012; Paul Greengrass’ MLK assassination pic, which was fast-tracked, and was scheduled to start shooting this month, but also faced some hurdles. But there should be good roles there for black actors in this, from whomever plays MLK, to the supporting members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Don Cheadle’s Mile Davis project, if it gets made this year, and soon; as well as Steve McQueen’s Fela biopic starring Chiwetel Ejiofor; again, if it gets made this year; Geoffrey Fletcher’s directorial debut, Violet & Daisy, which stars Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bedel. Little has been heard about this one since its initial announcement last year, but it’s currently in post-production, and should be released sometime this year. I have no idea what to expect, since Fletcher’s talents as a director are still relatively unknown. Most know him as the award-winning screenwriter of Precious… this time he’s directing as well. This might be a Thelma & Louise type of ride.
These are films that are scheduled to be released this year, but their chances are up in the air, mostly because they are all unproven talents, so I have no idea what to expect from them; I’m referring specifically to Fantasia Barino in Euzhan Palcy’s Mahalia Jackson biopic; Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (yes that guy) in Things Fall Apart, in which he stars alongside Lynn Whitfield and Ray Liotta. And before you laugh, he and others involved in the project have said that 50’s performance will surprise us. He lost some 50 pounds for the role, so maybe that should demonstrate his dedication to the craft and this particular film. However, his last several movies have been straight-to-dvd releases, and this one just might end up there too.
Lastly, Antoine Fuqua’s Tupac project, for which he says he’s planning on casting unknowns in all the major roles. This could very well be another Notorious. But I’m hopeful it’s not.
The Indie Underdogs
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention those independent films. Some are still on the festival circuit, others have already been released;and the rest were acquired for distribution and should see theaters later this year. Dee Rees’ Pariah, Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Gun Hill Road, Ava DuVernay’s I Will Follow, Qasim Basir’s Mooz-lum and Victoria Mahoney’s Yelling To The Sky each have some potential for Oscar consideration. I’m just not sure if any of these will have enough of a marketing push behind them to show up on Oscar’s radar, whether or not they deserve to be considered.
In the past we have seen small indie films ride critical acclaim to Academy Awards attention – most recently Winter’s Bone, which was nominated in 4 of the major categories this year; of course, last year, Precious did very well for Lee Daniels and company, receiving nominations in 4 major categories as well, winning 2; and in 2009, Frozen River made a small splash, receiving nominations in the Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay categories. The film’s estimated budget was a minuscule $1 million (relative to industry averages and the other films it was nominated with).
So really, any of these films could be that film, when awards season comes around later this year.
In the so-called non-major categories, we rarely give cinematographers attention! I’d love to see Bradford Young get some looks this year; he shot 2 films that screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year – Pariah and the lush Restless City. Each film benefits immensely from his eye – particularly the latter film, Restless City, which is a thing of beauty! I’d almost go as far as to say that his technical work is the film, and he deserves to be recognized – at least on the indie awards circuit.
Alright, I’ll end it all here. Not necessarily a prettier picture, but, there are more opportunities compared to last year.
I should add that there certainly could be some films in the works currently that I just don’t know about, that might shake things up later in the year.
Tambay Obenson is editor of Shadow And Act on the indieWIRE Network at blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact.