John Singleton on Hollywood's 'Slavery Zeitgeist' (Guest Column)

9:00 AM PST 12/18/2013 by John Singleton

The acclaimed director on how Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station," "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" were made outside the studio system, and what's next for African-American movies: "The chains on what can be made and what can't in Hollywood have been unshackled."

 

 

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Director John Singleton on how 2013 has changed Hollywood's idea of commercial viability for African American-themed movies.

When Ryan Coogler, a newly minted USC film school grad, took his screenplay about the police killing of Oscar Grant to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in January 2012, he had no idea what the next year would bring. Within six months, the work was in production in his native Oakland with seed money from a Chinese investor and other producers, including co-star Octavia Spencer. A year later, the picture won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance and went on a worldwide tour, garnering kudos at Cannes, Deauville and from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review and the Independent Spirit Awards.

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Not bad for a movie that cost less than a million dollars. The plain truth is, Fruitvale Station was made totally outside the Hollywood studio system and every ounce of the picture feels authentic. The lives of the people involved in the movie will never be the same.

This year has seen a number of films helmed by African-American directors that raise the bar and also many questions concerning the industry's historical outlook on what is commercial and what isn't. In a town where many executives hold six-figure positions and are basically hired to say no ad infinitum, several projects have been made outside the system and are finding commercial and critical success.

Legendary producer Laura Ziskin initially developed Lee Daniels' The Butler. The picture eventually found life with a phalanx of producers and financiers that included NBA ballplayer Michael Finley; Sheila Johnson, the ex-wife of BET's Bob Johnson; and producer Cassian Elwes. Golden Globes snubs aside, this picture will be the stuff of legend for all the success it has attained despite industry rules. What are those rules? It's black-themed, a period film and concerns the civil rights movement -- so it can't make money. Yet the $30 million movie has grossed close to $150 million worldwide with room to grow. Whatever the awards season outcome, The Butler will have changed the landscape of the industry in a positive way.

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The clear awards frontrunner 12 Years a Slave never could have been made by a major Hollywood film studio. With all respect, it isn't the first to have been attempted on this subject matter. Several filmmakers over time have made slavery-based projects, albeit with fewer resources, to spotty results. What makes Steve McQueen's picture distinctive is its all-encompassing organic feel. Everything came together with this movie: the acting, by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o, among others; writing; McQueen's direction; Hans Zimmer's delicate, haunting score. It will be interesting to see how the "slavery zeitgeist" created by this picture plays out in the next year. One thing is for certain: The chains on what can be made and what can't in Hollywood have been unshackled.

Photographed by Miller Mobley; Dan Monick

 

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