September 29, 2016 - 8:32 AM
TORONTO - Writer and director Barry Jenkins knew his film "Moonlight" stood out from the rest, but in the year of #OscarsSoWhite its themes resonate beyond even what he could have imagined.
His poetic generational story set in an impoverished Miami neighbourhood struck a chord with film festival audiences with its portrayal of a black man's struggle over his identity.
"People have been saying, 'I've never seen a character like this before; I've never seen this story told before,'" Jenkins said in a recent interview.
"These stories are pervasive and we never see them represented."
With Hollywood diversity under the microscope, a number of major films with black lead characters will have the benefit of social awareness in the fall movie season.
Others like "Hidden Figures," the true story of three black women who helped NASA in the space race, slave uprising drama "Birth of a Nation," and Disney's Ugandan chess prodigy tale "Queen of Katwe" are among titles with a diversity hook.
Historical interracial romance "Loving" also joins the list of films with both Oscar and box-office ambitions.
Together, the slate could signify the undoing of an age-old structure of underrepresentation of minorities in mainstream U.S. cinema, but UCLA sociology chair Darnell Hunt is tempering his optimism.
"I'm hesitant to say the few films being celebrated this year indicate some major turning point," says the co-author of the annual "Hollywood Diversity Report," which tracks inclusivity in U.S. film.
"I don't think we'll really know for a few years."
Hunt remembers three years ago when diversity — particularly of black Americans — on screen was the topic du jour for awards season. Even with all the chatter about three films that were hailed as major contenders, "The Butler," "Fruitvale Station" and "12 Years a Slave," only the latter scored any Oscar nominations. It won best picture that year.
After the Oscars wrapped, the conversation quickly shifted away from diversity. Reflecting on what's happened in Hollywood since then, Hunt doesn't see much progress in terms of minorities in cinema.
"We're treading water, at best," Hunt says.
"Selma" was one of the few films that broke through the Oscar barrier in 2015, but lead actor David Oyelowo was shut out for his acclaimed role as Martin Luther King Jr.
Last year the disparity worsened when several black actors and directors were left without nominations, even though they were widely considered front-runners.
Many in the industry acknowledged that change was crucial. Oscar organizers moved to boost diversity within the ranks of their members, hoping a blend of filmmakers and artists with different backgrounds might shake up the nomination process and smooth over criticism.
Several projects wound up dragged into the conversation, whether the filmmakers liked it or not.
"Magnificent Seven" director Antoine Fuqua downplayed suggestions at the Toronto International Film Festival his film was any sort of calculated play for attention, while "Queen of Katwe" director Mira Nair has been cautious about linking her film with a diversity push.
"We were not chasing a wave," she says of her Ugandan-set drama.
"I was making a film about this reality in all its flamboyance, but it is ... a 100 per cent African film."
Nair says she was more pleased that her storyline avoided typical Hollywood tropes like the racial conflict of black versus white people or the outsider who saves a village.
"This is about a real tapestry of a human life that you see," she says.
"People seem to really get affected by it. They get inspired by it."
Extending those positive sentiments beyond Oscar season will be the next step for the industry. Most conversations about diversity in Hollywood still don't acknowledge the lack of other ethnic minorities in lead roles.
Jenkins hopes "Moonlight" could challenge viewers to contemplate new perspectives and different people.
"Maybe they walk out of the cineplex ... and they see someone who looks like this character," he says.
"Instead of just judging that person, they can maybe see, oh, that person has a story."
— With files from Victoria Ahearn and Diana Mehta.
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News from © The Canadian Press, 2016