As we near the end of 2013, NPR is taking a look at the numbers that tell the story of this year — numbers that, if you really understand them, give insight into the world we're living in, right now. You'll hear the stories behind numbers ranging from zero to 1 trillion.
When it comes to race and film, the number of the year is 11.
I started the count recently at a movie theater just outside Washington, D.C., where I met Kahlila Liverpool. We were there for a movie and a meal with the D.C. Black Film and Media Club, a local Meetup group that attends screenings of films featuring black actors and by black directors.
Liverpool and I bought tickets to see Black Nativity, but there were three other films starring black actors and by black directors listed above the box office at the multiplex.
This year's list, though, goes on to include a total of eleven films, each grossing from about half a million dollars to more than $100 million. It's almost double the number of last year's group of comparable films, and it comes after perennial criticism of Hollywood's lack of roles for black talent on and off screen.
"I was surprised at how many black films were out this year," Liverpool said. "I told one of my friends in California, 'Oh, my gosh! There's tons of black movies out! Did you notice that?' "
Moviegoers and critics have also noticed the range of this year's 11 films that shatter the stereotype of "black film."
They span the gamut of genres, from Oscar bait introducing audiences to untold historical epics (12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels' The Butler) and smaller dramas about urban life (Fruitvale Station, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete) and marital infidelity (Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor), to a Christmas musical (Black Nativity), plus romantic comedies (The Best Man Holiday, Baggage Claim and Peeples) and more straight-up comedies (Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain and Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas).
(Besides the top-grossing 11, there were also smaller films starring black actors, by black directors, that received shorter theatrical runs, including Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George and Sheldon Candis' LUV. A number of this year's films by black directors, such as Spike Lee's Oldboy and Antoine Fuqua's Olympus Has Fallen, featured white actors in leading roles. Black actors also had a number of leading roles in films directed by white and Asian-American directors, including Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, 42 and After Earth.)
A Boom-And-Bust Cycle
Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, a producer for Django Unchained who wrote and directed the 1990 hit House Party, says he's not all that surprised by this year's long list of films.
"There's a number of market forces that all came together and made something possible," he explains. "The most important thing about Hollywood is that it works on historical precedent."
In recent years, that precedent has been set by successful black filmmakers like Tyler Perry, whose films have consistently raked in tens of millions of dollars at the box office.
Hudlin says they've proven time and time again that films with black actors, by black directors can reach a large audience. He also credits a growing behind-the-screen network of black film executives and producers helping to nurture projects.
But he warns that this year's crop of films follows a traditional boom-and-bust cycle in Hollywood.
"We saw in the 1970s an explosion of black filmmakers, then not so much. Then in the '80s and '90s, we had another explosion of black filmmakers, and then not so much," he says.
In 1992, Hudlin directed the big-budget Eddie Murphy comedy Boomerang, which featured an all-star cast including Halle Berry, Robin Givens, Chris Rock, David Alan Grier, Martin Lawrence and Eartha Kitt.
The film came out in the same year as Spike Lee's biopic Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington in an Oscar-nominated role, plus thrillers like Ernest Dickerson's Juice with Tupac Shakur and Omar Epps, Kevin Hooks' Passenger 57 starring Wesley Snipes, and Bill Duke's Deep Cover with Laurence Fishburne. There were also smaller releases, including Julie Dash's historical drama Daughters of the Dust and Bébé's Kids, an animated film featuring black protagonists directed by Bruce W. Smith and written by Hudlin.
'End' Of An Era?
For Hudlin, it all seemed to add up to a turning point.
"We thought, 'OK, here we are! We're switching gears! We're going to the next level!' " he says, "but the fact is that was the end of an era."
That era can be kept alive with a more solid infrastructure of support in Hollywood, according to Wesley Morris, a film critic for Grantland who has seen all 11 of this year's films.
Only one of them — Universal Pictures' The Best Man Holiday — was produced by a major Hollywood studio.
"They can't all just be independent movies. They can't all just be movies about slaves. And they can't all star the same three actors," Morris says, "and I think this year, you got a real sense that that is definitely something that is not only possible, but it's viable as well."
Back at the movie theater, Liverpool, who is African-American, told me that seeing more black actors in films by black directors provides not just more entertainment options, but also personal affirmation.
"It's really important to validate my experience and see some of my experiences portrayed on screen," she said.
Still, what Liverpool doesn't see enough of on screen is black women in leading roles.
Only three of this year's top 11 films starring black actors, by black directors were carried by a lead female role. Of the three, one was played by the writer-director-producer of Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas — himself.