Is There an ‘Obama Effect’ in Hollywood?

by | September 18, 2013 at 9:07 AM | Black Entertainment

"12 Years a Slave" (Photo: Regency Enterprises)

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Anticipating the release of “12 Years a Slave,” producer Harvey Weinstein has attributed the successful year in black cinema to an “Obama Effect, ” an erasure of racial lines triggered by the nation’s first black president.

Weinstein’s theory is premised upon the recurring notion of a “renaissance” year for black films, and appears up for debate nonetheless.

Movies like “The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Mandela,” “42,” and Steve McQueen’s upcoming historical drama mark a fertile year for black stars and filmmakers, not to mention comedy releases such as “Baggage Claim,” “The Best Man Holiday,” and “Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas.”

Yet those in the industry conflict over what constitutes a renaissance, and whether or not Obama’s had much influence on the big screen status quo.

“A renaissance highlights a new self-defining sense of culture,” Lillian Ruiz, writer and Social Media Director for Flavorpill Media, tells the Grio. “I’d like to see a renaissance around a new black narrative that isn’t this narrative of constant struggle, violence and oppression, which seems to be the narrative that people are most comfortable telling.”

In her column for Flavorwire, Ruiz deconstructed the idea of African-American identity on film, reducing the idea of today’s renaissance as a “myth.”

She believes movie makers primarily focus on placing black characters in cyclical tales of servitude and toil, overlooking modern, flourishing roles where black men and women are seen simply succeeding.

“You don’t often see films about black people getting to lead normal lives,” Ruiz explains.

What a true ‘Obama Effect’ would mean

Ruiz describes two general scenarios used as plot lines for black films: the first being the urban comedy, championed by a director like Perry and frequently “riddled with stereotypes;” the second, the historical saga of oppression.

Beyond those templates, few others exist.

“Could you imagine if mainstream Hollywood’s two stories were Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy” and the Holocaust?” She argues. “The whole idea that there are those two verticals, and nothing in between, when you put it in that context, is really ridiculous. Where are those middle stories? You can’t call it a renaissance until you’re touching all pockets of black life.”

And never mind the proposition of the Obamas having an impact. If that were the case, Ruiz would expect to see the Huxtables on screen.

She dismisses Weinstein’s statements as disingenuous.

“Saying that the Obama Effect makes people more comfortable watching a slave narrative doesn’t make any sense,” Ruiz says. “If anything a true Obama Effect would be the American public being open and ready to seeing a “Cosby Show” style family on their movie screen. Or seeing a film about a couple like the Obamas in some sort of interesting comedy in the style of Lynn Shelton or Nicole Holofcener.”

A time for black filmmakers to exploit

Perhaps Weinstein was overzealous with his words, but he also could be looking at the direction ahead.

While a full-blown rebirth of black cinema may not yet be realized, the breadth and range of talent this year seems impressive.

In his observations, Weinstein noted, “You have great black filmmakers like Lee Daniels, Ryan Coogler, Steve McQueen, and great actors like Idris (Elba) and Chiwetel (Ejiofor) and Naomie Harris. It’s a great moment.”

A moment to capitalize on, suggests New York-based independent filmmaker Coodie Simmons.

Simmons, along with his directing partner Chike Ozah, have directed music videos for artists like Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Common and Mos Def, and most recently made the ESPN Films 30 for 30 documentary, Benji.

Now focused on features, Simmons takes Weinstein’s statements as a chance.

“The subject matter is kind of stereotypical, but those films right there are going to open up the door for me to tell my stories,” he explains.

Like Ruiz, Simmons wouldn’t go so far as to call it a renaissance, but he appreciates the growing roster of black filmmakers.

He sees it as an opportunity and gateway for his own work.

“The renaissance was really in the ’70s when you had those great films like “Cooley High,” “Claudine,” Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, original black stories,” Simmons points out. “Now it’s more biopic, based on a true story. It’s like “42,” now they’re going to be looking for the next “42.” Or they had so much success with “The Help” so they’re looking for the next “The Help”…but hey. I’m about to dig up my next film and get in to tell my story.”

Changing public outlook makes a difference in where the industry will go, says Simmons, and for that he credits the Weinsteins and apparent Obama Effect.

If more people accept black culture, which he believes results from Obama’s presidency, the scope of African-American stories will inevitably expand.

Along those lines, if producers of Weinstein’s caliber begin to see these tales as profitable, more films will be green-lit.