Could this be the year when there are four movies that garner Best Actor Academy Award nominations for black actors? Oscar talk abounds for Idris Elba in “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom,” Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years A Slave,” Forest Whitaker in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station.” I don’t usually make these prognostications, although Oscar speculation has become somewhat of a sport at the Toronto film festival. But because of the the very real possibility of this happening, and the very historical nature of it if it does, I couldn’t resist.
In “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” Elba plays the iconic South African leader over a period of decades. Though he has a long list of film credits, Elba is probably best-known for his role as Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell on “The Wire” and his more recent starring role on “Luther" (for which he won a 2012 Golden Globe). This movie gives him a big-screen project worthy of his dramatic talents. Yes, he can be delightful in something like "Pacific Rim,” but seeing him in this role is a reminder that he has an incredible gift for serious drama.
Chiwetel Ejiofor has been earning the attention of critics since at least as early as “Dirty Pretty Things" in 2002" and in "12 Years a Slave," he gets the kind of role an actor can do wonders with. He plays Solomon Northup, a free black man in pre–Civil War New York who was abducted and sold into slavery. Michael Fassbender plays a sadistic slave owner, and Brad Pitt is an abolitionist who changes Norhtup’s life after 12 years as a slave. It’s based on a true story, and the film has left many people at Toronto so devastated that they can barely talk about the film after seeing it.
Forest Whitaker has been earning much praise for his portrayal of Cecil Gaines, a fictionalized version of Eugene Allen, the first African-American to serve as a White House butler. Much attention (some might say too much) has been paid to the casting of the various Presidents and First Ladies, but Whitaker is the real story here. Oprah Winfrey returns to acting after a long (too long) absence from the screen as Gaines’s wife, and the loving chemistry of their marriage is clear. Whitaker has always been an actor who could convey depths of thought and feeling beneath the surface, and this role gives him the chance to put that gift to work again.
Writer-director Ryan Cooglerpenned the script of “Fruitvale Station” with Michael B. Jordan in mind for the lead role, and it shows. Coogler has given Jordan an incredible script, one that plays to Jordan’s powers as an actor. Jordan plays Oscar Grant, an Oakland, CA, man shot and killed by transit police while handcuffed at a Bay Area Rapid Transit Station early on new year’s day 2009. In telling us the story of the last day of Oscar’s life, Jordan shows us a man whose daily life included the frustrations, humiliations and small indignities that so many young black man deal with on a daily basis. He doesn’t make Grant a saint; he makes him a human being we can empathize with, and whose death we understand as a tragedy. The supporting work from Melonie Diaz as Grant’s girlfriend and Octavia Spencer as his mother is wonderful, and gives a perfect frame for Jordan’s stellar work.