"The Birth of a Nation"
Given the overwhelming amount of attention that the #OscarsSoWhite social media protest generated with regards to the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees this year, as well as last week's various debates about the perceived abundance of "slave movies" as representative of the king of projects black actors often star in (I debunked that claim with facts here), this seemed like a good time to take another look at what black films, black actors and directors (this blog’s specific interests) might contend for Academy Awards next year.
I plan to continue updating this list as new information is provided that makes edits necessary - whether I learn about new films, new performances, or release date shifts, or if any film listed is released and doesn't live up to expectations, etc.
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 African descent. Of course, we haven’t seen all of these films yet, since some are still to be released (others 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, 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 we're just halfway through the year, and I’m sure that there are films 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 rest of the year - the Toronto International Film Festival in the early fall is often a stop for potential Oscar picks to make.
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.
2 – 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, with the Disney stamp on it, so expect a "Disnified" movie for better and worse. But 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 – 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. I wouldn't be surprised if it debuts at Toronto in the fall.
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. A late 2016 release is scheduled.
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. The cast also includes Michael Shannon, Alano Miller, Nick Kroll, Marton Csokas, and Terri Abney. Jeff Nichols directed. The film made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival just last month, where it was met by a generally enthusiastic response from critics, some already predicting that it will indeed be in the Oscar conversation for this year. It'll be released in November.
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 McConaughey, Gugu 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. Certainly McConaughey as the star might get looks, depending on how good the film is. It'll be out in 3 weeks, but there's no early word on it yet. So we'll start to get some idea of what critics think of it soon enough.
8 – Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis film, "Miles Ahead," was released a couple of months ago, 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 late summer/fall, not in the spring. It opened in a limited release to start, and, over successive months, gradually expanded to other cities nationwide, although it looks like it's just about run its course, after 9 weeks in theaters. Prior to its release, I thought it might gradually expand around the country, and play through much of the summer, making it a potential topic of conversation even still by the early fall. However, I’m still curious by the move to open it so early in the year; it suggests that there wasn’t much hope for it as an Oscar contender by the distributor. 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 http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/nyff-review-don-cheadle-strives-to-make-a-film-that-miles-davis-would-make-in-miles-ahead-20151011" href="http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/nyff-review-don-cheadle-strives-to-make-a-film-that-miles-davis-would-make-in-miles-ahead-20151011" target="_blank">here), I think Cheadle’s performance is strong enough to draw awards season chatter.
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 has already been released in France, but hasn’t yet attracted a USA distributor (at least, nothing that’s been announced). Although I would assume that it has been of interest to American distribs, 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. So maybe not.
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" (although, according to IMDB, it will be released in English-speaking countries as "Two Is a Family"). The expected feel-good film 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 narrative 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 reportedly drew 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. And given that it's set for release in France in December of this year, there's a chance that it may not see a USA release until 2017. So this is one that might be shifted to next year's list.
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. 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). A Toronto International Film Festival bow wouldn't surprise me.
12 – Ernest Dickerson’s "Double Play" – an adaptation of Frank Martinus Arion’s internationally acclaimed novel of the same name, considered his magnum opus features a strong cast that 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 quite a while, and we're all glad to see him back at that level. 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. And like Jenkins' "Moonlight" above, a Toronto debut is possible.
13 - Of course I can't forget about 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 earlier this year. When I first created this list in January, before the Sundance Film Festival, it was a film I considered, but no one had seen it at the time, so my consideration wasn't assured. But, as we all now know, its Sundance Film Festival premiere was mostly very well received by critics and audiences, and with an October 7 release now set, it puts it in the thick of awards season contention. I expected an initial limited release, followed by a gradual national roll-out, but, according to Box Office Mojo, Fox Searchlight is opening it wide right from the start, implying confidence in its potential. I also wouldn't be surprised if Fox Searchlight gives it some premium film festival exposure going into the October release - for example, at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, and Telluride, which are all typically stops for awards season contenders annually. Each pre-release screening could certainly help reinvigorate the kind of buzz that the film was enveloped in after its January debut at Sundance. Parker wrote, directed and also stars in the film, playing Nat Turner. He is joined by Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Mark Boone Jr. and others.
14 - A new addition to the list is a film that I thought might actually be released later this year as a potential awards season contender (it has all the makings of one), director Ted Melfi's "Hidden Figures," the much-anticipated feature film adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, which won't be published until September by HarperCollins, and which tells the untold true story of some of the African American women mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Civil Rights era. Starring in the film are Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, as the unsung scientists. They are joined in supporting roles by Mahershala Ali, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst and Glen Powell in the film. The adaptation was developed by producer Donna Gigliotti (producer of Oscar-caliber fare like "Shakespeare In Love" and "Silver Linings Playbook"), with Allison Schroeder penning the screenplay adaptation, which 20th Century Fox picked up, with a January 2017 release date eyed. The January release suggests that the film isn't necessarily an awards season property for the studio; unless it gets a late 2016 qualifying run in a limited number of theaters (NYC and LA specifically), and then opens wide in January 2017. However, as of today, the only thing we know is that a January 2017 release is what the studio is considering. But that could change. No one has read the book yet because it hasn't been published (except the people who are making a film based on it), but it certainly reads like potential awards material - especially at a time of movements like #OscarsSoWhite and #SoMale.
15. Another new addition is Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's "Fences," which Washington and Viola Davis will star in, reprising the roles they played in the Broadway revival that was directed by Kenny Leon, both giving strong performances that would earn them the highest honor in the theatre world, the Tony Award. Scott Rudin is producing the film which Paramount is backing, and award-winning playwright and writer Tony Kushner is working with Denzel Washington to script. They will essentially be rewriting August Wilson’s own draft from many years ago. In addition, the studio fast-tracked the project into production in order to get it ready for a fall 2016 theatrical release, in time for Academy Awards consideration. Washington and Viola Davis will reprise their respective roles from Broadway to screen (as Troy and Rose Maxson). Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney are all part of the cast. There could be acting nominations for the 2 lead roles (Washington and Davis). But beyond the leads is also possible. Keep in mind that this film adaptation of "Fences" isn’t part of the deal that Washington has with HBO, which will see him bring to the small screen, Wilson’s American Century Cycle series (minus "Fences"), which consists of 10 plays portraying the 20th century African American experience, from the early 1900s, just after slavery and the Civil War, to the 1990s.
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").
14 - Finally, I shouldn't forget about the documentaries; notably, the first comprehensive feature documentary to tell her Maya Angelou's story, "Still I Rise," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Other docs include "Life, Animated," a coming of age story about how animated Disney movies help Owen Suskind, a young autistic man, communicate with his family. The film is directed by Roger Ross Williams (a previous Oscar winner in the short documentary category, so he has some history with the Academy that might help separate him from the deluge). And there's also "Trapped" from the prolific Dawn Porter, which examines how abortion laws affect doctors, patients and clinics in different states. "Trapped" was released earlier this year; but "Maya Angelou and Still I Rise" continues to travel the film festival circuit and doesn't have a theatrical release date set. And "Life Animated" will see a limited theatrical release starting on July 1, via The Orchard.
I’ll end by repeating what I said at the start - this is not an exhaustive list. The S&A archives are deep, but there's always a chance that I have missed a film or 2. It happens. If I have, I'm sure someone will let me know. There will be additions and subtractions as the year progresses and I'll continue to update the list as I receive new information that leads to necessary edits. We're just about half-way through the year, so there's still a lot of film left to see. There will be new films revealed that we don’t know anything about yet; Some titles will make their world premieres at upcoming prominent festivals (Toronto especially). So the game is not over, 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.