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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

The Best Man Holiday is bourgie worlds away from Spike Lee favorite Fruitvale Station. (One wonders if the acclaimed indie will serve as a model for Lee's own Kickstarter-fueled Trayvon Martin project.) Filling out the many shades of his protagonist's story, and leading with cell phone footage of the fatal shooting, director Ryan Coogler never overplays the naturalistic narrative centered on Oscar Grant, so often writ larger than life all over Oakland in posters and street art. Though it was released at height of Martin-related outrage, the film keeps sensation and sentimentality at bay, apart from a foreboding scene of a stray dog's sudden death. Like that hound on the run, Michael B. Jordan's Grant is a driving, hustling, partying study in movement. Fully immersed in a multicultural Bay Area where racism operates in subtler and more complex ways than ever before, he, like any other restless rider, is just trying to get home.

Whitaker threw his weight behind Fruitvale Station as a producer — but his Gaines and The Butler seem wildly different on their stiff, sad surfaces. So much is simmering within Whitaker's stocky form, his steadfast servant with access to power that he's forbidden to use, and those blank looks. "We got two faces: ours and the ones that we got to show the white folks. Now to get up in the world, we have to make them feel non-threatened," mentor Maynard (Clarence Williams III of The Mod Squad) offers. Surrounded by Daniels players like Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, Gaines has one leg in a horrifying sharecropper past and another in upwardly mobile mid-century America, which filmmaker Daniels emphasizes by juxtaposing lynched black men with the stars and stripes at The Butler's start.

The director goes on to unfurl his showiest stylistic flourishes in a series of jump cuts aimed at the spectacle of hypocrisy perpetually unfolding in the White House, as a table is carefully laid for a excruciating formal state dinner, and the Freedom Riders — Gaines' son among them — are humiliated while staging a stoic sit-in at a Southern lunch counter. Passive resistance, in all its many forms, is the locus of both tragedy and heroism in The Butler.

Nature, with its dripping moss, strange sunsets, and even Biblical pestilence, provides brief snatches of beauty in 12 Years a Slave, as McQueen foregrounds the mechanistic business of slavery in the tools used for cutting cane, the wheels of a river boat. Free-born violinist Northup is beaten into a kind of tool after he's kidnapped and sold into slavery. His body, nude and exposed to traffickers and buyers, is transformed into a commodity that doesn't belong to him. His talents are also forced into new uses, as when he fiddles frantically while a mother is torn from her children in a horror-show of a salesroom floor — and later, during a torturous, late-night dance staged by Michael Fassbender's damaged, sadistic slave owner. The effect of seeing familiar white actors (like Fassbender, and the stars who play The Butler's various commanders in chief) reel by in a parade of status quo perpetrators, not saviors. In both 12 Years and The Butler, it's disorienting — as if everyone in Hollywood is also aching to "make black film."

12 years a slave

Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave

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