Hollywood's African-American film renaissance

By Jane Caffrey CNN | 10/21/2013, 5:06 p.m.
The half a dozen movies portraying the African-American experience in 2013 may signify a renaissance of African-American film.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, left, stars as Solomon Northup and Michael Fassbender stars as Edwin Epps in "12 Years a Slave." Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Ejiofor's "12 Years a Slave" co-star Michael Fassbender agrees that the election of the country's first African-American president, along with other timely events, helped trigger universal consciousness. "We're dealing with 150 years since the abolition of slavery," he said. "There are a lot of anniversaries at the moment, (the assassination of) Martin Luther King Jr. We have a black president in America. All of those things perhaps contribute."

Yet Smith warns that filmmakers must be cautious when focusing on historical narratives, saying too much emphasis on historical events minimizes issues that many African-Americans deal with today.

"When it comes to African-Americans, it's easier to talk about it like it happened, not like it's happening," he said. "That can create a safe dialogue because it happened 50, 100, 150 years ago. It allows us to look at it from a safe distance, but sometimes I think it's irresponsible because these issues are continuing to happen.

"That's why I want to see both sides of the narrative," he continued. "The historical side and the current side. We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."

Ryan Coogler is one filmmaker who wanted to address the issues that contemporary African-Americans face with his movie "Fruitvale Station," which chronicles the 2009 shooting of black 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a BART police officer.

"That's something that I deal with on a day-to-day basis, losing friends to gun violence," the 26-year-old director said at the movie's premiere. "I've seen lives cut short too soon, whether it be police-involved shootings or whether it be black-on-black crime.

"What gets glossed over is that we're human beings, too, like everybody else, young African-American males. I hope the people can see a little bit of themselves in the character if they sit down and watch the film."

Similarly, "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" illuminates the struggles of people living in the inner-city projects, following 13-year-old Mister (Skylan Brooks) as he tries to survive through a stifling New York summer after being abandoned by his mother (Jennifer Hudson).

"Mister's journey is not often heard," actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje said at the movie's premiere. "What he does is he just shows the humanity of who he is as a young black child, and you're able to see his humanity, his heart, beyond his skin color."

More than simply stories on the streets, this year's batch of movies also represent African-American family life on the big screen. Oprah Winfrey revealed she was very drawn to the cast of "The Butler" because of the central portrayal of the African-American family---doing typical things, like dropping a son off to college and finishing one another's sentences.

"One of the reasons why I love this film and wanted to be a part of it is the tenderness between the husband and wife, the tenderness and nurturing nature of the middle-class family," Winfrey said.

When it comes to depicting black family life, Robertson said the film industry has been slow to catch up to television, referencing sitcoms like "The Cosby Show" in the 1980s. And some argue that Hollywood still needs to stop putting African-Americans in roles of servitude, like slaves and servants, and start casting them more often as regular characters in mainstream movies.