Looking Ahead: 14+ Black Films, Actors and Directors That Might Contend for Oscars in 2017
Photo Credit: S & A

Looking Ahead: 14+ Black Films, Actors and Directors That Might Contend for Oscars in 2017

Birth Of A NationFor what should be obvious reasons, this seemed like an apropos item to repost; although, as I said I would the first time I published it a month ago, before the nominees were announced, I would update the list throughout the year as necessary; for example, when new films are announced, and 2016 release dates are set, as well as when we learn of the lineups of upcoming major film festivals where Oscar caliber films typically premiere. So I’ll likely be reposting this at least twice again, as I receive new data.

Today, I had to remove 2 films that were on the first list ("Race" and "Bastille Day") because neither looks like it’ll be in the Oscar conversation later this year. Released earlier this month, critic and audience response to "Race" has been lukewarm, and given how early in the year Focus Features released it, it’s safe to assume that the studio didn’t have exactly high expectations for it. As for "Bastille Day," the Idris Elba Paris-set actioner, a first trailer was released a couple of weeks ago, and, while I’m thrilled to see Elba leading an action film for a change, the trailer doesn’t suggest the film will be one that Oscar will take note of.


Given the overwhelming amount of attention that the #OscarsSoWhite social media protest has generated with regards to the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees this year, this seemed like a good time to take a look at what black films, black actors and directors (this blog’s specific interests) might contend for Academy Awards next year. 

Looking over my master list of all the "black films," films with black actors in lead/supporting roles, and films directed by black filmmakers that are set to be released this year (that we know of so far), I can say with some certainty that there will be a handful of potential nominees of the African diaspora. Of course, we haven’t seen any of these films yet, since they have yet to be released (and some of them don’t even have distribution in the USA yet), so this list is based entirely on speculation, considering the talent involved in each project, as well as Oscar history in terms of the kinds of films and performances that tend to get the Academy’s attention most. Also, I’m not a voting member of the Academy, so even if I think a film or performance is worthy of a nomination, after I watch each one eventually, the members of the Academy may not necessarily agree.

I’m using the S&A database as my source of information, as well as Box Office Mojo and IMDB to come up with these titles. But it’s still very early in the year, and I’m sure that there are films that I don’t yet know about, if only because they haven’t been made public yet. There are also all the films that will premiere somewhere along the international film festival circuit throughout the year – some that we already know about (those premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this month, for example); the others we’ll learn about as the year progresses.

So this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list. It will definitely be updated throughout the year, as dates are assigned to titles currently without dates, or dates are changed for those that do have dates, or as new titles are announced that are set for release during the year – theatrical releases specifically.

Without further ado…

1 –  Antoine Fuqua’s remake of "The Magnificent Seven" which Denzel Washington stars in. Although for those who’ve seen the original films on which it’s based (the 1960 John Sturges movie of the same name, which was based on Akira Kurosawa’s "Seven Samurai"), it’s an ensemble piece. Washington is probably the biggest name in front of the camera, but, it’s not his character’s story alone. Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Luke Grimes, Wagner Moura, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer, and Peter Sarsgaard all co-star. So depending on how meaty each role is, we can assume that any of them could be Oscar nominees next year, starting with Denzel Washington. Also Fuqua may get looks in the best director category.

Queen of Katwe2 – Lupita Nyong’o co-stars in director Mira Nair’s adaptation of the book "The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster," by Tim Crothers, on Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, also known as "The Queen of Katwe." Nyongo plays Phiona’s mother, Harriet Mutesi, in the highest profile film project to come to Uganda since 2006’s "The Last King of Scotland." Joining Nyong’o in "Katwe" is David Oyelowo. "Katwe" is set up at Disney, and it was filmed in the spring of last year, so there’s a very good chance that it premieres in 2016, likely on the film festival circuit, before a theatrical release later in the fall, if not earlier. There could be nominations for Nyong’o, Oyelowo, and the star of the film, newcomer Madina Nalwanga, who plays Phiona Mutesi, in what could be a role that gets her the same kind of attention that Abraham Attah received for "Beasts of No Nation."

3 – Nyong’o and Oyelowo both will also star in the film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s novel, "Americanah," which counts Brad Pitt’s Plan B as a producer. Although the film hasn’t even begun production yet (I’m not even certain that it’s been fully financed); so it’s likely not a film that we’ll see this year. But I’m including it anyway just in case it’s suddenly fast-tracked.

4 – More from Oyelowo who is also starring in Amma Asante’s follow-up to last year’s critically-acclaimed "Belle," titled "A United Kingdom," which began filming last October (it’s likely done with principal photography at this point). Oyelowo stars, playing yet another notable real-life human being in Seretse Khama – Botswana’s first president from 1966-80 – with Rosamund Pike co-starring, playing Ruth Williams, the young white woman who would eventually become his wife, and the inaugural First Lady of Botswana. The pair met in 1947 and eventually made headline news all over the world, after falling in love and getting married, while Seretse Khama was an heir to the chieftainship of the Bamangwato tribe in Botswama. The film is backed by French media giant Pathé International, but no USA studio is attached to distribute Stateside. But given its production timeline, a 2016 premiere is very likely.

5 – Will Smith stars in "Collateral Beauty" and will be surrounded by a rather strong cast: Helen Mirren, Edward Norton, Michael Pena, Naomie Harris and Rachel McAdams. The New Line film is being directed by David Frankel and will follow a New York advertising executive (Smith) who experiences a personal tragedy, when his colleagues try to come up with a plan to get him out of his depression. Their plan works, but in a different way than they imagined. That’s really all we know about the plot thus far. But with this cast, it’s a film that can’t be ignored. After reading the synopsis, I can’t help but think of a film like "The Game" – the David Fincher thriller that starred Michael Douglas as a wealthy but anti-social, divorced investment banker who is given a mysterious gift by his brother (Sean Penn) – participation in a game that integrates in strange ways with his everyday life, all in an attempt to get his brother to embrace life. But Will Smith just may be up for an Oscar nomination – assuming the film is released this year. Filming is set to start next month in NYC, so a late 2016 release isn’t out of the question.

6 – Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton star in an adaptation of the real-life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple living in the state of Virginia in the 1960s, where interracial coupling was illegal, following their struggles, including the US Supreme Court case named after them – Loving vs Virginia (1967); the landmark civil rights case in which the United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, declared Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, unconstitutional, overturning existing laws and bringing an official end to all race-based restrictions on marriage in the United States. I should mention that the story of the Lovings became the basis of "Mr. & Mrs. Loving," a 1996 made-for-TV movie that starred Lela Rochon, Timothy Hutton and Ruby Dee. However, it was reported that Mildred Loving, who was still alive at the time, dismissed it as mostly fantasy. The film starring Negga and Edgerton was filmed last year, directed by Jeff Nichols, so a 2016 premiere is very likely. And both stars could find themselves in consideration for Oscar nominations.

7 – "Free State of Jones" – the "epic action-drama" (as the press release described it) written and directed by Gary Ross ("The Hunger Games," "Seabiscuit," "Pleasantville"), stars Matthew McConaugheyGugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell in a story that’s set during the Civil War, and follows a defiant Southern farmer named Newt Knight (McConaughey), and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy. Banding together with other small farmers, and with the assistance of local slaves, Knight launched an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a "Free State of Jones." His marriage to a former slave, Rachel (played by Mbatha-Raw), and his subsequent establishment of a mixed race community was unique in the post-war South. Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, which distinguished him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance long beyond the War. Yes, it’s another "one of those" (I’m sure I don’t have to explain), and we know the Academy loves these kinds of historical dramas, so there just might be nominations here for both Mbatha-Raw and Ali (although I’m not entirely certain what his role is in the film). Certainly McConaughey as the star might get looks, depending on how good the film is.

Miles Ahead8 – Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis film, "Miles Ahead," is set for an April 1 release this year, which is somewhat early for a film that might be in contention during awards season. Typically, distribution companies release their Oscar-bait films in the fall, not in the spring. But it’s a film that will open in limited release to start, and will, over the following months, gradually expand to other cities nationwide, so it very well could still be a topic of conversation by the late summer. However, I’m still curious by the move to open it so early in the year; it suggests that there isn’t much hope for it as an Oscar contender. Not that there haven’t been films that were released early in the year that went on to receive nominations. But, more of than not, fall premieres are heavily favored for Oscar contenders by distributors. Still, as someone who’s already seen the film (read my review here), I think Cheadle’s performance is strong enough to draw awards season chatter.

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Omar Sy in "Chocolat"9 – Omar Sy stars in the French-produced feature film "Chocolat," which is based on the life of Rafael Padilla – a former Cuban-born slave, who became a performer in France during the Belle Epoque era. In short, nicknamed "Chocolat," Padilla was born in Cuba in 1868 and was sold into slavery at the age of 9, to a Portuguese merchant. After escaping slavery, he traveled to Paris and launched a career in the circus, captivating the French with his talents as a singer and dancer, and as a clown, working under the stage name "Chocolat," a term that, because of the roles he played, became slang for "ridiculed" or "abused." When his parents died, the woman charged with looking after him sent him to Europe, where Rafael hoped to find his freedom. He did odd jobs in Spain, and eventually arrived in Paris in 1887, at the age of 18, where he was discovered by Footit, a British clown who needed a partner. Rafael then joined the circus, where he was habitually cast in denigrating roles – like king of the monkeys, slave to Cleopatra, King of the jungle, etc. And it was there that he began to find himself, struggling with the distorted public image that made him a star, reconciling that with the human being that he was but few actually knew. He died in Bordeaux on November 4, 1917. French-Moroccan actor/director Roschdy Zem, is helming "Chocolat," which is set for a February release in France, but hasn’t yet attracted a USA distributor (at least, nothing that’s been announced). Although it has been of interest to some of them, given what is said to be a strong performance by Omar Sy – possibly one that could lead to awards recognition. The Weinstein Company released 2 of his few last French films in the USA, so they might have eyes on this one too. Although the company recently went through a restructuring of sorts (laying off a few dozen people), as it revamps its focus, and cuts back on spending. 

10 – A second Omar Sy film may also place him in contention for Oscar in 2017 – a French drama titled "Demain tout commence" which translate literally as "Tomorrow, It Begins" (according to Google anyway), which is being directed by Hugo Gélin, and co-stars Clemence Poesy. Details on the project aren’t in abundance, but we do know that the film will see Omar Sy play a reluctant father to a child he never knew he had, by an ex-girlfriend who suddenly shows up at his doorstep with the kid, and leaves the child there with him, disappearing afterward. Sy’s character, previously leaving a carefree life as a bachelor in the French Riviera, goes on a trip to find the mother, taking the child with him of course, ending up in London, where he takes a job as a stuntman. And, as you’d expect, a transformation follows, as he spends time with the child, and learns how to be a father. French actress Poesy plays the mother of the child. Newcomer Gloria Colston stars as the kid. The film has already drawing international interest from distributors (at the American Film Market last November), as Sy is an international star, thanks in great part to the humongous global success that was his break-out film, "Intouchables" 3 years ago, which won him the French equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar – the first time a black actor had won the award in France. Distributors are likely hoping for another feel-good Omar Sy dramedy that’ll win audiences over. No USA pickup yet though.

11 – Barry Jenkins’ eagerly-anticipated "Medicine for Melancholy" follow-up,"Moonlight," attracted Brad Pitt’s Plan B, indie distributor A24 ("Ex Machina") and producer Adele Romanski, as well as a solid cast of actors who will co-star in the film: Naomie Harris, Andre Holland and Mahershala Ali. The trio are joined by relative newcomers Alex R. Hibbert and Jaden Piner, who were cast after an extensive casting call in the Miami area, where the film is set. Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes and Jharrel Jerome round out the cast, with Janelle Monae also attached, set to make her big screen debut in the film. The project, based on the play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" by award-winning playwright Tarell McCraney (which was an IFP 2014 No Borders International Co-Production Market selection – the premiere U.S. forum for buyers, sales agents and financiers to meet with established producers), is a triptych drama about black queer youth, following Miami kids as they navigate the temptations of the drug trade and their burgeoning sexuality. Long-time readers will recall our 2012 announcement that Jenkins was working with McCraney on what they described as a triptych feature about Liberty City, although, understandably, at the time, Barry wasn’t keen on revealing much about the collaboration. But everything about this film, both in front of and behind the camera, suggests that it’ll be hard to ignore during awards season. I expect a late 2016 film festival premiere, since principal photography kicked off late last year. With Brad Pitt’s Plan B and A24 behind it, there could be nominations for Jenkins (director), writing (Jenkins and McCraney) and members of the cast (acting nods).

12 – Ernest Dickerson’s "Double Play," which began filming a couple of months ago in Curacao – an adaptation of Frank Martinus Arion’s internationally acclaimed novel of the same name, considered his magnum opus. The strong cast includes Lennie James, Colin Salmon, Alexander Karim, Isaach De Bankolé, Mustafa Shakir, Louis Gossett Jr., Melanie Liburd, Saycon Sengbloh, Bronson Pinchot and newcomer Dani Dare. Produced by Lisa Cortes, "Double Play" is set in 1973 and 2010, on the Caribbean island of Curacao, and tells the story of Ostrik (Salmon) who returns to his childhood home, and the memory of a fateful day more than 25 years prior. Over the course of that day, and a long-standing game of dominoes, the fates of four men (James, Karim, De Bankolé, and Shakir) are revealed through a journey of love, loss and deadly betrayal. Dickerson is directing from a script adaptation by Evan Jones and Alaric Alexander Smeets. It’s Dicketson’s first theater-bound feature film directing effort since "Never Die Alone" in 2004, so it’s been a while. Since then, he’s been directing TV shows (and at least one TV movie). We haven’t seen anything of the film yet, but there’s a lot of talent here both in front of and behind the camera, that one has to take notice and, at the very least, mark it down as a project to watch for whenever it finally makes it debut, which I expect will be later this year.

13 – There are directors like Andrew Dosunmu and Raoul Peck who are directing films that don’t have black casts, but might be considered awards-worthy projects when the time comes. Dosunmu is helming "Beat-up Little Seagull" from a script penned by Dosunmu and Darci Picoult (who also wrote the screenplay for Dosunmu’s last feature, the critically-acclaimed "Mother of George"). The story for "Seagull" revolves around the life of a woman (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) struggling to find her footing in the fast-paced world around her. But when her mother dies, she faces a crisis in which she has to work to find a means for survival, all the while hiding her struggles from her new lover (played by Keifer Sutherland). Indie super producer Christine Vachon is producing via her Killer Films production shingle, and she’s certainly no stranger to awards. Also Bradford Young is lensing the film, so you know it’s going to look good. An Oscar nomination (or 3) is definitely in Young’s future, and this just might be the first one. Depending on how well the film is received, Dosunmu may even find himself in some directing honors conversations (even if it’s not at the Academy). Secondly, Haitian auteur Raoul Peck is directing "Le jeune Karl Marx" ("The Young Karl Marx"), a period drama on the shaky friendship between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – the German intellectual titans and fathers of Marxism – charting their completion of the Communist Manifesto, and the creation of a revolutionary movement out of which were born the theoretical tools for emancipating oppressed masses in Europe and all around the world. In what has been described as quite an ambitious project, the film stars German actors, August Diehl as Marx, and Stefan Konarske as Engels. Produced by Agat Films and Peck’s own Velvet Film, as well as Rohfilm in Germany and Artemis Prods. in Belgium, Peck is directing the international co-production from a script he co-wrote with Pascal Bonitzer. Filming took place in Belgium last fall, and I fully expect a 2016 premiere for the film (as well as Dosunmu’s "Seagull").

null14 – I’ll end with all the films that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month – notably, Nate Parker’s Nat Turner film, "The Birth of a Nation," which was picked up in a record Sundance Film Festival sale by Fox Searchlight (an October release is set). Also there were documentaries at the festival on Maya Angelou (the first comprehensive feature documentary to tell her story), as well as Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson documentary on the making of his "Off the Wall" album. Other docs include "Life, Animated" from Roger Ross Williams (a previous Oscar winner in the short documentary category) and "Trapped" from the prolific Dawn Porter. There is also the young Barack Obama/Michelle Obama love story "Southside With You from director and screenwriter Richard Tanne, starring Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, and Vanessa Bell Calloway; and "How To Tell You’re A Douchebag" from Tahir Jetter; ‘The Fits,’ ‘Sleight,’ ‘The Land,’ ‘Kiki,’ and a few more. So there’s still much to sort out here before I can start moving each of these up the list as genuine awards season contenders later this year, and in 2017.

Once again, this is not a final list. There will be additions 9and subtractions) as the year progresses. There will be new films revealed that we don’t know anything about yet; there’s still an entire year of film festivals to consider, where I always discover some new "black film" or black talent that I’ve never heard of. So it’s still very early in the game, and I’m looking forward to seeing what this list looks like by the fall of this year, when we know a lot more than we do today.

Feel free to chime in if you think there’s a film or a potential performance that should be on this list, but isn’t – likely because I just didn’t think of it. 


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