'The Butler,' more new movies on black culture get Oscar buzz

Black directors,writers and actors are prominent in a wide range of movies in 2013. Newsday film critic Rafer Guzman is interviewed by Newsday Deputy Editor Monte Young. Videojournalist: Oswaldo Jimenez. (Aug. 9, 2013)

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Over the past couple of years, the Academy Awards ceremonies have been criticized for a lack of diversity. That may be about to change.

Black actors, directors and writers are suddenly highly visible this year. Following Warner Bros.' glossy biopic "42," about the baseball legend Jackie Robinson, and The Weinstein Company's independent hit "Fruitvale Station," about the 2009 shooting of an unarmed black man, at least six major films about the black experience will be released between this Friday and the end of the year, many with Oscar potential.

These aren't broad comedies in the "Barbershop" vein. With few exceptions, these are major productions with serious subjects (most are historically based) and potential crossover appeal. "Lee Daniels' The Butler" revisits the civil rights era, while "12 Years a Slave" looks back to the pre-Civil War South. "Black Nativity" adapts the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Two films will tell the stories of Nelson and Winnie Mandela; coincidentally, they're the only films in this group from white directors. There's also a star-packed romantic comedy, "Baggage Claim," about an airline stewardess looking for love.

"It's really unlike anything I've ever seen," says Kasi Lemmons, the writer-director of "Black Nativity." "These films are all different -- comedies, dramas, historical dramas, musicals. It really is a whole range of movies primarily directed by and starring African-Americans. It's pretty exciting."

Here are the upcoming releases that could make 2013, and possibly next year's Oscars, a landmark moment in black cinema.

'Lee Daniels' The Butler' (Opens Friday)

THE DEAL Forest Whitaker plays a fictionalized version of real White House butler Eugene Allen, who served during eight presidential terms from 1952 to 1986. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife. Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Jane Fonda and Mariah Carey also star. Co-written and directed by Daniels (2009's Oscar-winning "Precious").

THE BUZZ This Weinstein Company release was initially titled simply "The Butler" but required a change when Warner Bros. revealed that it already owned a 1916 silent by that name. That legal snag, however, couldn't stop the buzz on a movie that features Winfrey's first major role since 1998's "Beloved." Already, comparisons are being made to another eyewitness-to-history drama, the six-time Oscar-winner "Forrest Gump."

'Winnie Mandela' (Sept. 6)

THE DEAL Jennifer Hudson stars as the wife of anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela, played by Terrence Howard. Directed and co-written by South African filmmaker Darrell J. Roodt ("Sarafina!") from Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob's biography "Winnie Mandela: A Life."

THE BUZZ Following harsh reviews at 2011's Toronto International Film Festival, the film dropped off the map. But Image Entertainment, perhaps sensing something in the air, has set an aggressive release date far ahead of November's obvious Oscar contender "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom."

'Baggage Claim' (Sept. 27)

THE DEAL A romantic comedy starring Paula Patton as Montana Moore, a single airline stewardess looking for a man. Directed and written by David E. Talbert (the Ice Cube comedy "First Sunday") from his novel. With Djimon Hounsou, Derek Luke and Jill Scott.

THE BUZZ Along with last year's "Think Like a Man," this film marks a mini-trend of black-oriented movies with slick production and potential cross-racial appeal (Adam Brody plays Montana's matchmaking friend). The autumn release date is also significant, says Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association. "Typically, black movies come out between January 15 and March 1," he says. "That's the Black History Month window. But in the last few years we've seen that change."

'12 Years a Slave' (Oct. 18)

THE DEAL Based on the memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The cast includes Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard, plus Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry (both of "Beasts of the Southern Wild"). Directed by critical favorite Steve McQueen (2008's "Hunger").

THE BUZZ Fox Searchlight reportedly bumped this movie up from Dec. 27 after positive test-screenings. "Of all the movies coming this fall, this is the one I'm interested in," says Peter Debruge, film critic at Variety. "I really respect Steve McQueen as a director, and this is a big step up for him in ambition and the scale of the project."

'Black Nativity' (Nov. 27)

THE DEAL A young boy, Langston (Jacob Latimore), is sent to live with his grandfather (Forest Whitaker), who is staging a production of the Langston Hughes musical "Black Nativity." With Angela Bassett, Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson and Tyrese Gibson. Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons (2007's "Talk to Me").

THE BUZZ This musical drama may help familiarize viewers with Hughes' 1961 play. It's still produced annually by theaters around the country, most famously in Boston, which is where an 8-year-old Lemmons first saw it. "It's very open to interpretation," says Lemmons, "so every group that puts it on does it a little differently."

'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' (Nov. 29)

THE DEAL Idris Elba ("Pacific Rim") plays the former South African president Nelson Mandela, whose autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," is the basis for the movie. Naomie Harris ("Skyfall") plays his wife.

THE BUZZ Directed by Justin Chadwick and written by William Nicholson (both British), "Mandela" looks like epic Oscar bait, with a heroic narrative, a period backdrop and large crowd scenes. The role is a major coup for Elba, who could be an Academy Award contender this coming season.

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