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Why This Could Be A Historic Awards Season For Black Hollywood

It already is, actually, with the election of the Motion Picture Academy’s first African-American president.

Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

Cheryl Boone Isaacs at a preview for the Governor’s Ball prior to the 80th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 24, 2008

LOS ANGELES — Late Tuesday night, the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences elected Cheryl Boone Isaacs as president of the organization, making the public relations executive the first African American to head up the institution behind the Oscars. (She is also only the third woman to hold the position.)

It is a major milestone, coming on the heels of the Academy admitting a more widely diverse new crop of members. And it could be only the first in what has the very real potential to be a historic awards season for Black Hollywood. Several high profile films featuring black artists in front of and behind the camera have been or will be released over the coming months, all with the potential to rack up a litany of major nominations. Come March 2, 2014, the Dolby Theatre could host upward of three black Best Director nominees, and possibly four black Best Actor nominees.

To be clear, it is still tremendously early in the year to be making definitive Oscar predictions. Almost no “awards season”-style films have opened yet, and films that seem like sure things now could end up as disappointing duds when they’re released. That said, the fact that there are this many possible black contenders this year is quite noteworthy. Here they are:

3. Fruitvale Station

The Weinstein Company

In theaters now, Fruitvale Station has been winning wide acclaim for Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Oscar Grant, a young father who was killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer in early morning of Jan. 1, 2009. First-time writer-director Ryan Coogler has also impressed many with the film’s subtle storytelling confidence, and Octavia Spencer’s final scenes in the film as Grant’s mother are heartrending to say the least.

Possible nominations: Best Actor for Jordan, Best Supporting Actress for Spencer, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director for Coogler

4. Lee Daniels’ The Butler

The Weinstein Company

Out Aug. 16, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, features a slew of Hollywood luminaries but focuses on the story of a White House butler, played by Forest Whitaker, who served from the Eisenhower to the Reagan administrations. (The film is based on the life of a real-life African-American butler with a similar record of service.) Harvey Weinstein’s recent headline-grabbing squabble with Warner Bros. over the film’s title makes clear he’s gearing up for a major awards season push for the film.

Possible nominations: Best Actor for Whitaker, Best Supporting Actress for Oprah Winfrey, Best Director for Daniels, and Best Picture (including Daniels as a producer)

5. 12 Years A Slave

Fox Searchlight

Remarkably, 12 Years a Slave, out Oct. 18, will mark one of the very first major American feature films to take on the actual experience of slavery in the American South as its central theme and subject matter. It follows the true story of Solomon Northrup — played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster, 2012) in the film — a free black man living in pre-Civil War New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years.

Possible nominations: Best Actor for Ejiofor, Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong’o, Best Director for Steve McQueen (Shame), Best Adapted Screenplay John Ridley (Red Tails), and Best Picture (with McQueen as a producer)

6. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

With Nelson Mandela’s health a regular news story this year, this biopic about his life — with the Idris Elba playing Mandela — feels especially relevant. The last actor to play Mandela, Morgan Freeman, won an Oscar nod for his performance, and that was for a comparatively narrow sliver of the man’s life.

Possible nominations: Best Actor for Elba, Best Supporting Actress for Naomie Harris

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