Spiking the box office

THE YEAR IN FILM: Looking back at a triumphant year for African American films
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Real stories, real power: Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station
FRUITVALE STATION IMAGE COURTESY OF THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

arts@sfbg.com 

YEAR IN FILM It's tough to remember much of the '90s — what with the air horns and kindercore, flannel and Flavor Flav — but I seem to recall Spike Lee giving the orders that seemed to finally, fully come to pass in 2013: "Make black film."

Irony of ironies, when it seemed like so many black filmmakers were following through and doing just that — telling their communities' stories, visualizing their own histories, and fearlessly unlocking troubling and painful key themes — Lee sidled away from Red Hook Summer, last year's murky return to the fabled Brooklyn stomping grounds of 1989's Do the Right Thing, and seemed to move toward a fallback position as actioner-for-hire with his redo of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, as if to prove that, testify, he can crush skulls just like his old Amerindie-boys-club rival Quentin Tarantino.

Yet isn't Lee's Oldboy a "black film" concerning unjust incarceration or bondage, as much as Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave and Hunger are? Perhaps. The connections were in place, if you cared to look: the stasis of 12 Year's near-still opening shot, as Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and other slaves facing the audience, waiting and listening to a white foreman's directions, has its corollary in the multiple shots in Lee Daniels' The Butler, of Forest Whitaker's butler Cecil Gaines, face frozen. He's the veritable "invisible man," instructed to disappear into the background at White House dinners and forever listening for direction. And waiting — as if wondering when the moviemaking establishment will move on from its habit of bestowing statuettes for African American portraits in servitude, à la The Help (2011) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989).

It's been a long time coming — much like a certain African American president that butler Gaines had waited a lifetime to meet. Five years into that presidency, the man who tried to "do the right thing" has, intentionally or not, changed the conversation on black representation on screens both big and small. The country's ready to look at its past and break down the codes, whether they concern slavery, birthers' loaded allegations about Obama's "un-American-ness," Paula Deen's alleged workplace racism, or Julianne Hough's wrongheaded Halloween costume — a blackface tribute to "Orange is the New Black" character Crazy Eyes.

This year's contenders looked to not only historical role models like Jackie Robinson in 42 and Nelson Mandela in Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom) — in movies made by white filmmakers — but also lighter, aspirational figures such as Tyler Perry (who laid siege on the box office with two efforts, A Madea Christmas and Peeples), as well as the glossy buppies populating popular comedy sequel The Best Man Holiday. Fans blew up the Interwebs with indignation when some misbegotten USA Today editor came up with the headline "Holiday Nearly Beats Thor as Race-Themed Films Soar."

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