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The Year Of The Black Director?

 

In the 81 year history of the Academy Awards, nearly 500 films have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Up until now, not a single film that was directed by a black filmmaker has been included on that list. However, this year, with the critical and popular success of the urban indie drama PRECIOUS, that ignoble record could be history.

PRECIOUS, directed by Lee Daniels, has undergone a fascinating journey to become the "it" film of the indie film season.....a journey that began almost a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. However, a Sundance win has never been an assurance of popular success (in fact, sometimes the opposite is the case). PRECIOUS, which opened to rapturous reviews in November,  is a leading contender in  the end-of-year awards races, including the Oscars (which will announce its nominees in a few weeks).

While black actors have won acting Oscars over the years (Hattie McDaniel in 1939 for GONE WITH THE WIND, Sidney Poitier in 1963 for LILIES OF THE  FIELDHalley Berry for MONSTER'S BALL, Denzel Washington for both GLORY and TRAINING DAY and, most recently, Jennifer Hudson for the musical DREAMGIRLS), a black director has NEVER won and only one has ever been nominated (that would be John Singleton for BOYZ IN THE HOOD in 1992). Not even Spike Lee, whose films DO THE RIGHT THING and MALCOLM X were nominated in writing categories, has ever received a directing nomination from the Academy.

Well all that may be changing with a nod for Lee Daniels, the producer-turned-director who persevered to get PRECIOUS made. Rejected by scores of studios and independent houses because of the film's difficult subject matter (poverty, sexual and physical abuse, urban misery), the director has said that PRECIOUS was destined to go straight to DVD release before the Sundance win. After Sundance, the film got ringing endorsements from media titans Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry and secured a distribution deal with Lionsgate, one of the more aggressive indie companies on the scene. So far, PRECIOUS has generated nearly $50 million at the American box office and is still in major theatrical release around the country.

Daniels' nomination is not yet a shoe-in. The Golden Globes, which did recognize the film and several actors in its announced nominations, did not give a nod to Daniels. With so many new films up for Oscar gold, the  director may be overlooked (or be in the bottom 5 of the top ten, but not qualify). This omission, despite whatever nominations for the film and its lead and supporting actresses, will only perpetuate the fact that so few black directors have expansive careers in the American film business.

While the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the membership organization that bestows the Oscars each year, has certainly changed in terms of its membership and the rise of minority directors, writers, actors and producers in its ranks, there is still a nagging color-blindness that has persisted. Only 2 percent of the 370 members in its directors' branch are African-Americans.

It will be interesting to see if Mr. Daniels can go all the way with his passion project. And even if he does not win (which is a longshot considering his competition of Kathryn Bigelow, Jason Reitman, Clint Eastwood and James Cameron), in this case it will truly be an honor (and historical landmark) just to be nominated.

Sandy Mandelberger, Awards Watch Editor

 

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