It is still a little too early for definitive Academy Award predictions, but we are already certain that this year’s film slate will be far “less white” than it was in the previous two years. We have already seen/read about several films that present as strong awards candidates with diverse talent in front of and behind the camera.
There are still a few months left to examine this year’s crop of films; however, we have decided to point out a few strong contenders with African American women both in front of and behind the screen. This is not an exhaustive list, and will be updated as the 2017 Oscar conversation continues.
In no specific order, check out the list below:
Queen of Katwe
Queen of Katwe is the biographical film that focuses on the story of Phiona Mutesi — played by actress Madina Nalwanga — a chess player who rises to greatness from the slums of Kampala to become the Woman Candidate Master. Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong’o plays Phiona’s mother, Harriet Mutesi, alongside David Oyelowo, who plays Robert Katende, Phiona’s chess coach.
Newcomer, Madina Nalwanga grew up in Uganda, and was found through a Casting Director who visited her community dance class. Although nervous in her first role, Nalwanga admitted that watching her co-star Nyong’o prepare helped her a great deal. “Lupita, she really helped me, like, to get into the character all the time,” she said in an interview with NPR, “I could see her getting ready to be the character and then I copied her. I would copy everything that she does, but in a silent way because I never wanted her to see me doing what she was doing. We had tough scenes whereby we have to cry. And it was kind of hard to me to cry, but I saw her getting ready, she was exercising all the time.”
Nyong’o, known for her breakout role and Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, expressed the importance of this film in an interview with Vogue Magazine. “There are certain cards that have been dealt me that I take on. I want to create opportunities for other people of color because I’m fortunate enough to have a platform to do that. That is why Eclipsed and even Queen of Katwe are so important, to change the narrative, offer a new lens on African identity.”
The film originally premiered at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, and went on to a national release on September 30th.
Actress Ruth Negga stars as Mildred Loving in the upcoming film, Loving, a story that follows her interracial marriage to Richard Loving, a white man played by Joel Edgerton. In 1958, both are arrested and sentenced to prison in Virginia because their marriage violates the state’s anti-miscegenation law leading to the Supreme Court’s decision, Loving v. Virginia, that prohibits interracial marriage as unconstitutional. The critically acclaimed performances in this film has garnered well deserved attention, and the film has already cemented itself as a strong Oscar contender. Loving will be released in November 2016.
Fox used the Toronto International Film Festival to introduce footage from Hidden Figures, a movie directed by Theodore Melfi starring Golden Globe winner and Emmy and Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson and Supporting Actress Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. The film is based on the true story of mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, and her two colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, some of the first African-American women to help NASA galvanize the Space Race
The film will receive an awards qualifying release in December, and will be released nationwide January 2017 (MLK weekend).
Set in the 1950s at a time of tumultuous race relations, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, play Troy and Rose Maxson in Fences, an adaptation of the original play written by August Wilson. The film chronicles the life of former baseball player Troy Maxson as he tries to provide for his family during an intense period of dissatisfaction with the events of his life.
Both actors originally starred in the play on Broadway in 2010, taking home Tony awards for their performance. If Viola Davis is nominated for Best Actress for Fences, it will be her second nomination since her 2011 performance in The Help.
13TH traces the history from the US constitution’s 13th amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, to 2016, where one-in-three black American males can expect to be imprisoned during his lifetime. It explores racial imbalances in the criminal justice system, and features appearances from author Michelle Alexander, activist Angela Davis, and Senator Cory Booker, among others. At it’s core, this powerful film charts the path that shows the audience how history has been repeating itself from the Jim Crow era to the present.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Duvernay explains her reason for making 13TH, “Really, it’s to give context to the current moment,” she says. “The current moment of mass criminalization, of incarceration as an industry, prison as profit, punishment as profit. And the current moment of the declaration that the lives of black people, our very breath, our very dignity, our very humanity, are valuable and matter to the world.”
Should 13TH enter the Oscar circuit, it could be a contender for Best Documentary, second after Selma’s nomination last year for Best Picture. However, Duvernay is also known for her role as the Creator and Director of OWN’s Queen Sugar, Director of the indie films, Middle of Nowhere and I Will Follow, along with her latest venture, A Wrinkle in Time, an adaptation of the 1963 science fiction novel by Madeleine L’ Engle.
13TH marks DuVernay’s first feature length film since the critically acclaimed Selma, and is currently in theaters and on Netflix.
The riveting film Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, follows a young black boy by the name of Little, through three different chapters in his life, as he rediscovers his identity in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods. Starring Masherala Ali, Naomie Harris, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Andre Holland, the film recently released to critical acclaim, with nods for possible Best Picture and Best Actress for Naomie Harris, who plays Paula, Little’s drug-addicted mother.
Naomie Harris is also known for her role as Winnie Mandela in the biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Eve Moneypenny in the James Bond movie, Skyfall.
Will Smith stars as Howard Inlet, an advertising executive, in Collateral Beauty, a movie that examines the underlying emotions that come with living through personal tragedy. Smith, who attempts to escape life after his daughter passes away, begins writing letters to things — love, time, and death – all personified through various characters in the film.
Smith has an impressive list of co-stars, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, and Naomie Harris. Harris portrays Madeline, Smith’s love interest.
A United Kingdom
Amma Asante directs A United Kingdom, a biographical British romance, based off of the book, Colour Bar, written by Susan Williams. The movie centers around the interracial romance of Prince Sereste Khama of Botswana, played by David Oyelowo, and his British wife Ruth Williams Khama, played by Rosamund Pike, as they attempt to introduce their marriage to the masses.
The film opened at the London Film Festival, with Asante expressing her passion about it, “The sense I got while we were filming was that [Botswanans] knew this was a great story, but [it] was an untold story, one that most of the world didn’t know about today. There was relief, and of course a curiosity, as to how their country, and they as a people, would be reflected on screen.”
In 2005, Asante, was the recipient of a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television) Award for Outstanding Debut for her first feature, A Way of Life. Ten years later, Asante went on to direct her second feature Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw in 2014 which grossed over $16M.
A United Kingdom is schedule for a theatrical release on February 17.
Free State of Jones: Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Matthew McConaughey, Mahershala Ali, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in Free State of Jones. The film revolves around Newton “Newt” Knight, a Confederate army outlaw who teams up with local slaves to lead a rebellion against the South after believing that they are enlisting poor white farmers to fight on behalf of Confederacy interests. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Rachel Knight, a runaway slave who joins the rebellion and later becomes Newt’s wife.
In Time Magazine, Mbatha-Raw discusses the distinction of this film, “This movie isn’t just about slavery. Often you see villainous slave owners and victimized slaves. Jones, on the other hand, depicts poor white farmers joining runaway slaves to form an uprising. It’s about how people can be united in the fight for freedom.”
The film was released in June 2016, could serve as a first Oscar nomination for Gugu Mbatha-Raw.