Breakthrough year for black-themed films get mixed reception from Oscars

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Hollywood honored black performers that lit up the silver screen in 2013 with this morning’s Academy Award nominations, although some beloved African-American themed films were largely overlooked.

12 Years a Slave, the acclaimed drama which retells the story of Solomon Northup, an educated, Northern black man kidnapped and sold into slavery, had the strongest showing of any ‘black’ film scoring 9 nominations including the top categories of best picture, director (Steve McQueen), actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and supporting actress (Lupita Nyong’o).

African-American writer John Ridley, who hasn’t received as much publicity as he deserves for his stellar screenplay adapted from Northup’s memoir, was also nominated. If he were to win on Oscar night he’d only be the second black writer to take home an award. If McQueen were to be victorious he would be the first black director to ever take home an Academy Award (outside of the documentary category).

The film has long been seen as one of the strongest frontrunners to take home the best picture honor, although that status has been called into question somewhat after a disappointing showing at the Golden Globes. Despite winning best picture drama at that ceremony, McQueen’s film went 0 for 6 in the other categories in which it was nominated.

The movie will compete with an expanded group of best picture nominees, including: Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Gravity, Nebraska, Philomena, Her and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler and media mogul Oprah Winfrey’s popular supporting performance were surprisingly snubbed. While a massive box office hit, the period film never enjoyed the same rapturous critical reception 12 Years a Slave did. Still, Oprah was widely expected to be nominated for her supporting role in the film. Winfrey was previously nominated for her 1985 performance in The Color Purple.

Had she been in the mix it would have marked two Oscar noms for just three big screen acting roles in Oprah’s career — quite a remarkable feat.

And speaking of remarkable, there’s Barkhad Abdi. In his first feature film role, Abdi held his own opposite A-lister (and fellow nominee) Tom Hanks in a nuanced portrayal of a Somali pirate in the hit film Captain Phillips. Before getting this star-making role, Abdi was working as a limousine driver in Minnesota.

Unfortunately the crowded and competitive field largely pushed Fruitvale Station and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom to the sidelines.

Fruitvale Station, which dramatizes the last hours of Oscar Grant’s life, may have been hurt by a release earlier in the season — essentially, it may have peaked too soon. Fans of the film hoped to see its first-time director, Ryan Coogler, and stars Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordan nominated, but they missed the cut.

Despite widespread praise for Idris Elba’s work in Mandela, he too didn’t break into the best actor field. Still, with heavyweights like Christian Bale (American Hustle), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) and veteran character actor Bruce Dern (for the quirky comedy Nebraska) taking up spots it was hard to see how Elba could break in, especially after his film received only so-so reviews.

Still, a song from the film composed and performed by U2 did get a nomination for best song. Pharrell Williams was also nominated for his song “Happy” from the blockbuster Despicable Me 2.

Nevertheless, with five nominations in the major categories, this is one of the most historic showings ever for performers of color. Whether you’re fans of the films honored or not, that is a development worth celebrating.