Hollywood Shuffle? Films With Racial Themes Have Been Recent Box Office Winners

November 8, 2013  |  

12 Years A Slave

Black is finally “in” in Hollywood? Well, at least at the box office.

Black themed films are making money seemingly against the odds. “The only film on this weekend’s box-office Top 10 that wasn’t on more than 2,000 screens was director Steve McQueen’s acclaimed 12 Years a Slave, which expanded from a little over 100 screens to 410 and earned an impressive $4.6 million,” reports BusinessWeek. Despite this disadvantage, the historical drama has pulled in $8.7 million to date and is already being mentioned as an Oscar front runner. And when it gets expanded to about 1,000 theaters next week, the film will, no doubt, be making a lot more money.

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free man from New York who is grabbed and sold into slavery in the South, 12 Years A Slave arrived on the heels of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which has grossed $115 million so far. That movie also has Oscar buzz surrounding it. And earlier this year, the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, earned $95 million. Its budget was $40 million.

“Even when films dealing with race haven’t made boatloads of money, they have managed to seize the cultural spotlight,” notes Business Week. The indie film Fruitvale Station, the true life story of Oscar Grant who was shot and killed by BART police, hit theaters right around the same time the George Zimmerman verdict was delivered. The film, of course, became a part of the conversation. Considering its low production budget and limited release, it made a respectable $16 million or so.

 This year “may go down in the scriptures as the greatest year for black actors, directors, and themes in Hollywood history,” Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott wrote recently. For years Hollywood shied away from the issue, with the occasional film like Do the Right Thing or Boyz N the Hood breaking through. It has always been a battle for filmmakers in Hollywood to even broach the subject. “George Lucas, of all people, famously spent 23 years trying to make Red Tails, his film about the Tuskegee Airmen,” reports BusinessWeek. Nearly every Hollywood studio passed on the project, often citing that the story’s all-black heroes would fail to interest “mainstream” audiences. When the film was finally released last year, it only made $48 million at the box office — at lot less than the $100 million that Lucas is rumored to have spent making and marketing it.

Lee Daniels, director of The Butler, actually faced many difficulties as he tried to bring the film to the screen, despite the 2009 success of his Oscar-winning Precious, which earned $47 million from a $10 million budget. The box office success of Precious “sparked a great deal of debate within studios about the prospects for other challenging projects.” said Los Angeles Times film critic Betsy Sharkey.  And last year there were a few films with racial themes such as Beasts of the Southern Wild and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, both of which did great at the box office while scoring numerous Oscar nominations.

And still on the horizon are Blue Caprice, Black Nativity, another major Oscar hopeful, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Do you think we’ve reached a turning point?

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