Coming Soon: A Breakout Year for Black Films
By Michael Cieply
LOS ANGELES — Musical. Romance. Epic history. Social drama. Christmas comedy.
After years of complaint and self-criticism about the shortage of prominent movies by and about black Americans, film companies are poised to release an extraordinary cluster of them across an array of genres in the last five months of 2013.
At least 10 new films will be released, including several awards contenders, from both independent and major distributors, like the Weinstein Company, Fox Searchlight and Universal Pictures.
Even some of those who made this year’s movies have been caught by surprise.
“You tell me!” said the director and screenwriter Lee Daniels, when asked how so many black-driven films had materialized at once. His historical drama “The Butler” — based on a real-life White House butler who served eight presidents — is to be released by Weinstein on Aug. 16.
“I’m working in my own bubble, I come up for air, and there they are,” Mr. Daniels said.
Black filmmakers say the wave of 2013 releases was built in large part on the creativity that has flourished on the independent-film circuit, which has become a laboratory of sorts for more prominent African-American-themed productions. Writers and directors have been sharpening their skills on indie films the last several years while waiting for big distributors to regain interest.
Studio executives also say there is a growing audience with more multicultural tastes that gives these films a broader appeal. “There’s a genre audience out there, but it’s no longer quite so segregated,” said Stephen Gilula, a president of Fox Searchlight. African-American-themed films, when they do find mainstream distributors, are often playing at more theaters in more cities than in the past, Mr. Gilula said.
In addition, a cohort of black cultural figures, including directors, actors, writers and playwrights, has fostered a shared spirit that has sustained black filmmakers, even when studios were paying less attention.
“I would have to liken this to the Harlem Renaissance,” said David E. Talbert, who wrote and directed “Baggage Claim,” a romance that is based on his novel of the same title and will be released in September.
Mr. Talbert, also a playwright, compared the support system among black filmmakers to the time when black musicians and writers buoyed one another in the early 20th century.
The 2013 releases are also notable for their range. While black-themed films have never disappeared, the interest of distributors has waned when the movies stuck to more singular genres like urban dramas, about, say, the problems of a drug culture or family dysfunction. Now there is a varied mix that has some filmmakers talking about a cultural rebirth.
“It’s what I always wished for,” said Kasi Lemmons, who directed “Black Nativity,” a musical with a libretto by Langston Hughes, scheduled for release in November.
“I always thought it would be an indicator of success, when we had a full spectrum of films,” Ms. Lemmons added.