Last summer at Cannes, Harvey Weinstein held a special press conference to show off forthcoming film footage from The Master, Silver Linings Playbook, and Django Unchained — three major works from A-list auteurs. The Weinstein Company slate isn’t stacked in quite the same way this year, but Weinstein held another event earlier today at the Hotel Majestic, at which he ran down the company’s entire slate, padding some of the first looks — including a five-minute reel for Nicole Kidman’s Grace Kelly biopic — with lots of trailers that we’ve already seen from films like August: Osage County and The Butler. Still, you couldn’t help but notice that Weinstein’s upcoming slate was packed with prestige films starring black actors, including Forest Whitaker, Michael B. Jordan, and Idris Elba. Always a canny awards-season presence, could Weinstein push all three men into a history-making Best Actor category?
We haven’t had more than one black nominee for Best Actor since 2006, when Whitaker and Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) faced off; Whitaker took home the Oscar that year for The Last King of Scotland. He’s back in the mix this year for the Weinstein-produced The Butler, an era-spanning drama from director Lee Daniels (Precious) that casts Whitaker as a butler who served several presidents while butting heads with his fiery activist son (David Oyelowo). And then there’s Fruitvale Station, a Sundance hit that also bowed this week at Cannes. Based on a true story, the film stars Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, a young man killed in a controversial, racially tinged 2009 shooting. Weinstein brought Jordan and young director Ryan Coogler out onstage with him today, joking, “I told them that if the French booed, I would disassociate myself from the film instantly”; he needn’t have worried, as the Cannes screening was through the roof.
The trailers for those two movies are already online, but earlier, Weinstein also showed off a teaser for his new pickup Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba as the African president-to-be Nelson Mandela. “This is not your daddy’s HBO version of Mandela,” noted Weinstein. “This is the kick-ass Mandela.” Indeed, when the ultra-buff Elba shed his shirt and assumed a fighter’s stance in the trailer, we were definitely seeing a brand-new, unexpected side of a famous figure: Mandela as hunky action hero.
The Oscars are often blasted for their lily-white lineups, but the presence of these three films — plus a wild card coming in the Steve McQueen–directed, Chiwetel Ejiofor–starring Twelve Years a Slave — could make this year’s Best Actor category rather unprecedented. It is obviously very early to be handicapping, and Weinstein demurred a bit when I asked him about that angle. “The great thing about the lineup is that what we thought was good, we [distributed],” he told me. “And if we’re color-blind, that’s a good thing. I’m always pushing three great actors — I don’t care what [race] they are.” Still, it’s an encouraging trend, even if all four of the aforementioned movies are biopics. If history is made in the Best Actor category this year, let’s hope it’ll eventually encourage Hollywood to cast black leads in roles that don’t even require them.